Tiger Woods’ Southern Hills comeback revealed a different kind of return

tiger woods warms up masters

After the Masters, Tiger Woods is shifting his aim toward the PGA Championship.

Stephen Denton

Tiger Woods’ Southern Hills return revealed a stunning amount of nothing about the 15-time major champion.

Tiger’s appearance in Tulsa revealed that he looks good. That he feels good — or at least, good enough to play 18 consecutive holes of golf just two weeks removed from the Masters. That he’s in good spirits. (If he wasn’t, Tiger would be his regular reclusive self, practicing at the Medalist between backyard sessions at his Jupiter compound.)

Perhaps, as some indicated, Woods’ return indicated he plans to play at the PGA Championship later this month. He’s won at Southern Hills before, in 2007, and is intimately familiar with its quirks. A redesign in 2018 opened things up even further, which, the experts theorized, should be music to Tiger’s ears.

“Whoever wins at Southern Hills is going to have to be a great chipper,” club pro Cary Cozby said Friday. “And [Woods] is still that.”

The reality, however, is that Tiger Woods’ Southern Hills return divulged startlingly little. He is, in fact, hoping to play in the PGA — he told us that much at Augusta National two weeks ago. He does look good — as our eyes have confirmed since last December’s PNC Championship. Does he feel good? That’s a loaded question for a 46-year-old on the other side of a half-dozen major surgeries, but considering he’s still entertaining the idea of high-level competition, he seems just fine.

In truth, the most revealing question from Tiger’s Tulsa rendezvous can be posed to the rest of us: why did we care enough to find out?

You probably learned about Tiger’s round at Southern Hills from the internet. Perhaps the alerting post came from the trove of accounts that closely track the movements of his private jet. Or maybe it was the helicopter footage, which turned Woods’ afternoon stroll into police chase-caliber entertainment. Or you saw the Zapruder-style video of his first tee shot, which quickly made the rounds on social media.

This, of course, is not your fault. The internet has breathlessly followed Tiger Woods for as long as Tiger Woods was Tiger Woods. Today, the videos have grown better in quality and easier to obtain, but no different.

It’s not the internet’s fault, either. Social media is a warped meritocracy — the kind that rewards posts that draw our attention. Tiger scores quite highly on that metric, which means posts about him score quite highly, too.

Why did you find out about Tiger’s practice round? Because you still care, because everyone still cares. Because even today, in an era defined by changing tastes for celebrities, our appetite for Tiger Woods has not ceased.

“It’s amazing what he has to deal with on a daily basis,” a wide-eyed Cary Cozby told SiriusXM Friday, a day after caddying for Woods. “He came through the gate. He didn’t even come to the clubhouse because he knew what he’d have to deal with and went straight to the range. They sent a text said, ‘Hey, we’re on the practice tee. I’ll meet you on the first tee.’”

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It’s easy to understand Cozby’s incredulity. It’s one thing to watch thousands of fans chase Woods at the Masters, it’s another entirely to witness firsthand as one man’s private Thursday afternoon round devolves into a full-blown media spectacle.

“Of course our clubhouse is open so we probably had 20 people, the patio, the golf shop’s right off the first tee. So there were probably 20 members that slipped out there to watch him. He didn’t look up, hit his shot,” Cozby said. “Second hole, there’s a helicopter. Fourth hole, there’s 50 to 70 people up on the hill overlooking that hole. And by the time we get to six there’s 30 to 40 people in the trees across the street with television cameras and phones and pictures, and [saying] ‘We love you, Tiger. Go get ’em, Tiger. Great shot, Tiger.’ Just amazing.”

This is reality for Tiger Woods, odd and unrelenting as it may be. There is no such thing as anonymity. No escape. No privacy. This reality is why the walls in his life are as large and as firm as they are. And ironically, why his appearances captivate us even further.

This isn’t to say he deserves our pity. Tiger has profited off this very complex immensely. He will leave this earth with more money and influence than most people can even fathom. It is merely to say that this reality has come at a price — a price that has not diminished, even a quarter-century later.

For Cary Cozby, the Southern Hills pro, Thursday was a glimpse into the life of the last true sports icon of the pre-Internet age. It was interesting, then, how he compared the experience.

“It looked like the Beatles were here.”

What Thursday taught us isn’t that Tiger Woods has returned, but rather, that Tigermania has returned with him.

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