When Tiger Woods retreats, it’s OK to be selfishly wistful about what you’ll miss
When Tiger Woods is hurt, he retreats. When he retreats, we don’t hear from him. And when we don’t hear from him, we are denied access to perhaps the smartest mind in the game. Even from a hobbled version of Woods, there is so much to learn.
It may sound selfish to talk this way — highlighting what we will miss — just as Woods begins to rest and rehabilitate his right foot for the next three, four or however many months it takes to recover from subtalar fusion surgery. But our experience consuming the game is tied to his experience playing it. And the last 18 months have played out entirely through Woods’ own volition and grit. It’s been yet another chapter in the only public life Woods has ever known: competitive golf and the persistence that exists in between.
So, no, I don’t think it’s selfish to be disappointed right now, knowing that we won’t see Woods for some time. We can be happy that this latest surgery will alleviate his arthritis and nudge him toward a more pain-free lifestyle. But we had just settled into a somewhat comfortable, somewhat weird normalcy with Woods. We grimaced as he grimaced, we were thrilled when he was thrilled, we smiled when he smiled. In this derivative state, Woods had become more relatable than ever. Reaching that new normal wasn’t linear, but it was enlightening, and often more interesting than the previous version of Woods who won all the trophies. This journey was all about minor victories — walking 18 holes, making cuts, drilling an iron that made you feel, if even for a fleeting moment, like it was 2001 all over again. Baby steps, just like the kind we try to take in our own lives.
Take St. Andrews, Woods’ favorite course in the world. The Old Course would have had to have been under water for Woods to not tee it up at the 150th Open last summer, but it was still an accomplishment for him to get there. “Hey, just the fact that I was able to play Augusta,” Woods said in July, “when I just started weight bearing six weeks prior to the event, that to me was quite an accomplishment. Then [the PGA Championship in] Tulsa was another accomplishment. This whole year has been something that I’m very proud of, that I’m able to have gotten to this point with my team to get here to where I’ve been able to play in these tournaments when it looked like I would never have this opportunity ever again.”
On the surface, Woods may have still done and said all the things he’s always done and said at majors, but what’s clear in hindsight is just how much he was relishing the experience, embracing the favorite things he used to do when his health wasn’t such a question mark. The week before the Open, Woods took a buddies trip through Ireland to play Ballybunion with Rory McIlroy, just like Woods used to do with Mark O’Meara. He then arrived early in St. Andrews and convinced Justin Thomas to chip and putt with him around all 18 greens. Woods told Thomas he didn’t expect anyone in town to notice, which was amusingly shortsighted. About 100 spectators came out to watch his tutorial on touch — some even brought their dogs — none of whom pestered him for selfies or autographs. It was just two masters of their craft trying to learn a bit more themselves, teaching us all in the process.
When I asked Thomas about that night, he called it “one of the coolest evenings ever.” Then came Monday’s “Celebration of Champions” hit-and-giggle at the Old Course, where cameras caught the loosest, happiest Woods I’ve ever seen, geeking about the whippiness of Lee Trevino’s driver shaft, hanging on every word Trevino said about nipping wedge shots off tight lies. Kudos to the R&A for grouping them together.
Woods missed the cut by a mile at St. Andrews but it had to be one of the most fulfilling weeks of his life. All because this new normal has been about appreciation and gratitude. About proving to himself before anybody else that the car crash didn’t zap the golfing genius out of his hands. That he’s still got “it,” or at least some semblance of “it.”
We saw it a handful of times in the last 18 months. His third round 67 at the Genesis in February, where only two players in the field beat him that day. That gritty 71 at the PGA Championship last May that earned him a weekend tee time. That opening 71 at Augusta National last April, filled with sublime up-and-down pars. I walked the front nine with Woods that day — watching him play Figure It Out Golf — and even if it wasn’t graceful, I remember thinking, Damn, there is still much to be learned from this guy. I hope everyone is taking notes.
He doesn’t always share his secrets in press conferences — in fact, he rarely does — but Woods’ sponsors have recently been able to tap into a more generous side of him. There’s Woods obsessing over toe-down chip shots with Scottie Scheffler in a TaylorMade video. And Tommy Fleetwood’s jaw on the turf after watching Woods hit stingers. There was the Bridgestone podcast earlier this year where Woods revealed how he tests golf balls — he begins with shots near the green, not on full swings — and detailed tiny flaws in how he generates spin. It was the nerdiest of golf nerdery, but, dammit, that’s the good stuff. The stuff Woods used to keep to himself.
Fred Couples recently told me that Woods has been surprised how young players don’t often approach him with questions the way he used to bother the generation of pros who came before him. The Ray Floyds and the Jose Marias. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t happen. Among those players who have picked Woods’ brain are McIlroy and Thomas and Jon Rahm, the reigning Masters champ.
It’s not Woods’ job to be a secret-sharer, but he’s seemed more interested in playing that role the last two years than ever before. He just kinda needs to be around to do it, because golf secrets are the most nuanced in sport, better shown than explained over the phone. Whatever version of Woods does return to competitive golf — and some version will — will be with a fused joint in his foot. The secrets take on a different form at that point.
Woods’ sharing schedule over the last year was largely ceremonial, with a press conference in February at his event, another one in December at his other event, and then at whichever majors he played in between. It was a lovely cadence for the golf press. Woods’ sessions weren’t as detailed or colorful as McIlroy’s, but about once a month he would end up unveiling aspects of his life we rarely considered: being a father, aging out of pro golf, earning success. When the right questions are asked, Woods has cautiously shared little secrets about what he cares about at his core.
That’ll happen again, somewhere down the road. His next guaranteed appearance is in late November, in the Bahamas. He’ll be in a better place then, too. If it’s sooner, we can rejoice when it happens. We can also be sad we have to wait for it.
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