Tiger Woods is back, and facing more questions than ever before

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods will play the first two rounds of the Genesis Invitational alongside Justin Thomas and Gary Woodland.

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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Even though it feels like Tiger Woods makes an annual, splashy return at the Genesis Invitational, this one is different in so many ways. There’s his body, another year older, more of his bones fused than last year. There are the clothes draped on that body, a new brand he launched Monday. (Sorry, Nike.) There’s his looper, Lance Barrett, who’s new to the bag, and new to the hoopla of Tiger World. There’s Woods’ position within PGA Tour government, as a player director on the Tour’s policy board, and the only one with an indefinite term. A leader as long as he wants to be. Under that umbrella, there’s also a completely different array of questions. Have you met with the Saudi PIF? Why do you consider SSG the best investment partner? How should the pro game be reunified? 

Woods sat in front of the press Wednesday for his customary 25 minutes. No one’s press conferences last quite as long as his. For Woods, it was his first time speaking publicly in two months. The longer he stays away, the more topics pile up. While that may come with the territory of being Tiger Woods, there’s one issue with that territory — he’s not great at candidly wading through it.

Answering questions is hard right now, for both the greatest player who ever lived and all the other guys, too. Rory McIlroy resigned from the Policy Board last fall after months and months as the Tour’s de facto speaker of the house. Charley Hoffman’s board term ended in December, and he says that makes him happy. The decisions at hand are difficult! Jordan Spieth, another board member, answered business questions during the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and then promptly had a “pretty frank” phone call with McIlroy about how he was doing it. 

When it comes to Woods, though — a man who deserves both sympathy and respect for what he’s done in the game — it’s easy to forget that he volunteered for this new, highly scrutinized, more public-facing position. It’s easy to forget he was catapulted into a governance position by a quasi-coup, when 41 top players sent a letter to Commissioner Jay Monahan last July. A letter that didn’t ask for Woods to have a place on the policy board. A letter that demanded it. 

The reasons are obvious. The majority of the membership has spent their lives idolizing him, and he’s clearly interested in being their leader. Woods’ opinion holds more weight than any player who ever lived, considering the Tour has profited off his unique marketability like no athlete sport has ever seen. Woods is no doubt throwing his weighty opinion around behind the scenes, but when it comes to sharing what matters most with the public, he’s far from forthcoming. 

On the topic of PIF investment, Woods said the negotiations are ongoing. “Ongoing” and “fluid.” The same words everyone has used for months. 

“Ultimately we would like to have PIF be a part of our Tour and a part of our product,” Woods said. “Financially, the monies that they have come to the table with and what we initially had agreed to in the framework agreement, those are all the same numbers. Anything beyond this is going to be obviously over and above. We’re in a position right now, hopefully, [where] we can make our product better in the short term and long term.”

When it comes to Tour business, Woods speaks like a careful CEO, concerned his words might move stock prices. Does he know the end goal of all this mega-money golf interest from the Saudi PIF? 

“From what their representatives have discussed with us, yes and no, because that changes and that evolves from a few months ago to what it is currently now,” he said.

Whether that’s a good kind of change or a bad kind, Woods said he didn’t know. What we do know is that the money arriving in the game will benefit players. But will the fans get anything out of it? 

“We want to have the history, and have all of the intangibles that have made the PGA Tour — what it is right now and what has been, and hopefully what it will continue to be — even better. And how do we do that? That’s the whole idea of why we have a group like SSG to provide us with information and help with trying to create the best tour we could possibly have.”

To paraphrase: We’d like our new investors to make this the best PGA Tour ever. But the question used the word “fans” three times, and Woods’ answer didn’t use it, or any derivative of it, once. 

Sometimes, surface-level answers are just how it goes with Woods, whose life has been analyzed in excruciating detail for decades. Every sentence he utters can, and often does, become a headline. Eventually, he hopscotches his way through the list of queries to reach the one he gets asked all the time. The one everyone outside the press center is most curious about. 

How’s your game, pal?

It cannot be easy to play the role discussed above and also compete on the PGA Tour. Not to mention the fact that he’s taken on a third role this week: tournament host, a role that requires popping into luncheons, pressing flesh with executives and making appearances around the clock. Set your expectations accordingly, folks. 

When Woods played the Hero World Challenge in November, he was rusty, and he admitted it. When he played the PNC Championship a few weeks later, he was rusty, and admitted it. This week, he’s bound to be rusty. We’ll see if he admits it. But he’s been working for a few weeks on getting back into game shape, despite the phone calls and emails that come with Tour governance. 

On the 1st hole at Rivera Country Club Wednesday, Woods hit a creaky cut out into the fairway; then roasted a much better one on the 2nd. He dropped a dart into the difficult, par-3 4th and drained the putt. If he can do that again Thursday, he’ll be thrilled. It was an 18-hole pro-am, alongside fellow athletes Josh Allen and Aaron Hicks, everyone playing their own ball. Put another way, it was a Slow-am. Woods was planning on playing only nine of those holes, then walking the back nine. Simply walking golf holes means something to his stamina right now. But by the time he finished the last few holes, Woods made the uphill trek to the clubhouse still playing every shot. A reason for optimism.

Ultimately, pro-ams are like that. You watch and wonder if the shots are a sign of anything. You squint hard enough and they just might resemble what good golf could look like for a 48-year-old throughout the weekend (and season) that is to come. Woods’ most revealing answer Wednesday spoke to that. He was asked very simply, from a technical perspective, what are you working on to get your game ready for competition?

“I think that more than anything that I try and do from a technical standpoint is making sure I can still hit the golf ball flush and solid,” Woods said. “I don’t have the same speed I used to have. I don’t have the ability to practice the same amount of hours. But I still do work on making sure that I can hit the ball out of the middle of the face. If I can do that consistently — one of the reasons I really don’t have a coach right now — what my body does day-to-day, week-to-week just looks kind of different. I can’t really model myself or fit any kind of model — a lot of it’s my hands and my feel.

Now there’s something we can relate to. Returning to this sport is always about hands and feel.

“I built this golf swing the last few years — four, five years — based on my hands and what that feels like,” he said. “What that looks like, sometimes it doesn’t look pretty, but I can still hit the ball flush.”

He didn’t expand any further about what that means, but all golfers know that F-word. His version of flush might be different than yours, but so long as he feels it, he’s immediately the most fascinating golfer in the world, even if he doesn’t say much. Tiger Woods can still hit the ball flush. Isn’t that all you wanted to know, anyway? 

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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