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Tiger Woods is sending mixed signals from the comeback trail. How should we interpret them?

October 25, 2017

Is nothing safe from social media anymore? The president of the United States governs by Twitter. David Letterman’s beard has a Twitter account. And now the real shocker: Tiger Woods’s current effort to reclaim his golfing life—which in earlier iterations was cloaked in secrecy and referred to by the code name “It’s a Process”—is now available for all to see on his Twitter feed. Why would this decidedly private man put himself on display like that?

Well, you can try this theory on, just for size: This decidedly private man (along with his people) wants us to think not about the drug-addled Tiger Woods who stood for that awful mug shot after his arrest in the wee hours of a late-May night, but instead the iconic athlete who has 79 Tour wins and an eye on No. 80. Someday, Woods’s late 2017 use of Twitter may merit a mention in a public relations crisis-management grad-school class.

When Woods used to say that regaining form was a process, it was the truth. Improvement is a process, in golf and beyond, and he had always attempted it out of public view. It’s been part of the story of his career. Four back surgeries and all the rest.

But this walk down the comeback trail is different. We are being shown a series of no-sound snippets of Woods in action, some of them in super slow motion. At a press conference, Woods speaks words. (It’s a cultural requirement.) You see his whole face. But in these posted snippets, he says nothing and we can barely see one eye, let alone two. These releases he’s been making are more like a teaser for a movie, a special Sunday matinee called Tiger’s Revenge.

Let’s go to the videotape. You can find these clips on all your better golf websites. (Zee plan iz verking!) But to get the full-monty feel here of what he is doing, the best place to go is the original source, Woods’s official Twitter account.

At the top, you’ll see a photo, a formal portrait. It shows a smiling, handsome Woods in a dark suit, his gaze downward toward a desk, focused on his work. Nothing golfy about it. No swooshes.

About a foot south of that, you’ll see an Aug. 31 clip of Woods hitting a single pitch shot on a practice green. The caption reads, “Dr. gave me the OK to start pitching.” At a press conference, Woods might be asked to give up the doctor’s name. Not here.

Up a few inches from there is an Oct. 7 driving-range shot of Woods hitting an iron. The caption above it: “Smooth iron shots.”

Several inches north of that is an Oct. 15 shot, at regular speed, of Woods hitting a single drive on a golf course. The caption reads, “Making progress.” Sounds like a name for a new boat, to replace Privacy.

Then, almost immediately above that, is a clip of Woods hitting an on-the-course long iron, off a tee. The caption of this Oct. 23 post reads, “Return of the Stinger.”This is the longest of the four, checking in at 34 seconds, including a lengthy pose as Woods admires the shot, followed by several seconds devoted to Woods picking up his tee in slow motion.

After Woods posted the driver video, Hank Haney, Tiger’s former teacher but not likely auditioning for a reunion, responded to it, via Twitter. Haney wrote, “That’s a swing he could win with, it’s not across the line and stuck inside coming down, a little stiff looking but it’s good enough.” After the stinger video, Haney asserted on Twitter that Woods will make his return to competition at the Hero World Challenge in December. “You can book that,” Haney wrote.

The conversation was going to Woods and his golfing future.

For whatever it’s worth, keeping it to the golf for now, others looked at that single driver swing and had a different reaction, that the swing looked mechanically excellent but … mechanical. There’s no speed in it, none of the sheer explosiveness that once made Woods one of the most exciting figures to ever play the game. Given what his body has been through, there’s no surprise in that. Also, his swing could become dynamic again. Tournament play inspires greater energy, for one thing. But there’s nothing dynamic about that one proffered swing.

Maybe Woods’s future posted videos will show him making a single six-foot putt and another one chipping a shot stone dead with a hooded wedge. Those will prove nothing and Woods will know it. Part of his greatness as a golfer was a deep knowledge of what he could and could not do. He has said it many times: shooting 66 out of a cart while playing with the fellas at home is not shooting 66 in a Tour event, Joe LaCava carrying your bag, a pencil folded into your scorecard and playing with a guy who wants only one thing, for you to shoot a higher score than he does. Those six-footers look different with 10 million people watching you on TV. Those chip shots look different when you’re playing at Augusta National, a course you used to own. Now you’re looking at your ball and all you can think about is the lack of grass underneath it. He knows. That’s why he hasn’t been playing. That’s why he’s waiting, he says, for his doctors to approve his return to golf.

And that’s why he’s been sending out two contradicting messages. The videos about a comeback are one thing. But his comments at the Presidents Cup, about walking away from the game, were something else. Asked, in a Sept. 27 press conference, if it was possible that he might never play competitive golf again, Woods said, “Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what the future holds for me.”

It’s cagey, on his part, to sell it both ways. In the confusion, he’s lowering expectations, which takes some pressure off him. But the videos are signals to his sponsors and to his public that he’s still a professional golfer. The financial value of that to Woods is in the millions

Many, many people who care about the sport and the arc of this singular athlete’s life are rooting for Woods to make a recovery here. That one caption—Making Progress—is beautiful. It would be painful, to see his final athletic chapter be those various rounds in 2015 and 2017 that were a start-to-finish struggle. You wouldn’t wish that 82 at Phoenix in 2015 on any professional golfer.

But anyone with any experience in adulthood and the vagaries it brings knows what he must be focused on now: reclaiming not his golfing life, but his actual life. There were five drugs in his system when he was arrested in May. (Two painkillers, an anti-anxiety medication, a sleep medication and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.) What that signals we cannot fully know, but it is obviously not good health.

Given the events of that night and its fallout, what does his spin rate and launch angle mean to him right now? Not much. He can spin his improving golf to us but his real job now is to prove to court officials that he is not drug-dependent. Because if he can do that, he can continue to drive, for one thing. He can be the father and person he wants to be. He can get himself to Medalist and to the airport. He can ferry his kids to school and to their mother’s house. He can avoid the wars of custody.

On Friday, Woods is expected to plead guilty to a charge of reckless driving and enter what is known as a “diversion program.” It’s a term of jurisprudence. Those posted videos, they’re a diversion program of a different kind. This diversion program is one Woods will enter not at the behest of PR advisors but at the behest of the Palm Beach Circuit Court. The goal is to divert his behavior from something dangerous and self-destructive to something healthy and life-affirming. If you care about Tiger Woods, this is a good time to root for him. Tiger Woods the person.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.