You gotta believe! Why golf fans can’t let go of the promise of Tiger Woods

November 21, 2017

So Tiger Woods is playing in yet another return-to-competition event this week. The event happens to be his own, the Hero World Challenge in Albany, the Bahamas. If it sounds familiar it may be because this website and Golf Channel and most anywhere else you go in golf — actual, virtual and in between — has been murmuring about this homecoming for nearly two months.

And also because Woods had another of his return-to-competition events at this same tournament, one year ago. It’s a continuing series. The Bill Murray movie that should come to mind now is not the Gone With the Wind of golf movies, Caddyshack. It’s Groundhog Day, about a day in the life of a man who is destined to wake up at 6 a.m. to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” every day, for eternity, no matter what he does to his clock radio. We golf people cannot quit this Tiger Woods. We will continue to gather for these reunions until somebody is kind enough to pull the plug for us, or Tiger Woods shoots 280 over four days at a U.S. Open. The chances of that ever happening again are remote, but you can’t say they don’t exist.

The wide world of golf — the game’s fans, what’s left of its press corps, golf broadcasters, the PGA Tour marketing department, Woods’s sponsors — are so attached to what Woods was that we cannot accept where Woods is. Here’s one snapshot of him:

Tiger Woods is a 41-year-old single father with a body that has been reconstructed, ankles to eyeballs, with a host of surgeries. He is a professional golfer who famously has won 14 major titles but the most recent of them came on a Monday in June nearly 10 years ago. He is a private man by nature who has endured public indignities that are painful to even consider: his sex life being turned into comedy bits (2009-10), his battle with the chip yips in full view of his professional brethren (2015), his polite incompetence in responding to simple police questioning on a night recorded by a squad-car dashcam (May 29). As a result of his arrest that night, Woods is subject to court-mandated unannounced drug testing. It cannot be easy, being Tiger Woods.

It is far easier for us to think of more pleasant things, and so we innocents consume ourselves with another question: Can Woods win again? We’re looking to this field-of-18 Hero World Challenge and Woods’s “return to competition” for insight into the state of his game. But a golfer’s game starts with the state of his head. Once, Woods’s underlying life m.o. was see-ball, hit-ball. Earl had one eye on Jesus and another on world peace. Tiger’s father was already contemplating the influence his youngest child would have on the world, far beyond the 14 major titles he was predicting early on. But Tiger, wisely, had both eyes on his golf ball. All that was half-his-lifetime ago.

It’s not entirely our fault, our inability to let go. For one thing, it’s human nature. (Who among us has not Googled our high-school prom date?) More to the point, though, Woods tells us so little about what’s going on in his life that we must fill in blanks on our own. And being the good-natured people we are we imagine Woods spending his days on the range and his nights watching old Hogan tapes. All that likely suits Woods and his handlers just fine. Anyway, it feels good to think something lost can be recovered. The truth is: What is misplaced can be recovered. But what is lost is lost.

When the 2016 Hero was over, the headline was not that Hideki Matsuyama had won. It was that Woods had led the field in birdies. That fact was offered as proof that Woods’s golf, at age 40, still possessed plenty of firepower. It also served to paper over the fact that Woods had posted a lower score than only two other players.

The intrigue surrounding this newest return, to the degree such a thing can be measured, is no different than it was a year ago. (The series continues!) If Woods again leads the field in birdies but defeats only two other players, we’ll suddenly start jabbering about his chances at Augusta. When will we learn? We won’t.

When Woods won Arnold Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill on March 25, 2013, Nike, Woods’s primary sponsor, had a catchphrase ready to celebrate both the victory and Woods’s return as the No. 1 ranked player in the world: “Winning takes care of everything.” The company put the five words in quotes, as if the words belonged to the golfer. Maybe they did. It is unlikely that the Dalai Lama or any other wise elder saw a deep truth in that sentence then. By May 29 of this year, the disingenuousness — the offensiveness — of those five assembled word was plain for all to see. On the other side of the ledger, Nike did help pay (in a manner of speaking) for the sleek, powerful, black Mercedes Woods was driving that night. Good-looking car, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters at age 46, a decade past his prime. Johnny Miller, at age 46 and in a period when he was playing virtually no tournament golf, won at Pebble Beach in 1994, despite a seriously yippy putting stroke. Davis Love won a PGA Tour event at 51, two-plus years removed from spinal-fusion surgery. So could Woods could win a tournament again? Of course. Over the next decade, he could win multiple tournaments. That’s the sideshow, but it’s also the show that got us invested in his life in the first place.

This week in the Bahamas and over four rounds (you hope he plays four rounds), Woods might take teeny-tiny baby steps toward returning to the thing that made him famous in the first place. But whether he wins tournaments again or doesn’t, we know and he knows that there is nothing that takes care of everything. Not good health, not love, not winning.

This Hero World Challenge, with a name packed with three of the most powerful words known to English-speakers around the world, is devoid of significance. But it will be a nice distraction, for us and for Woods. That’s the best thing about it, and that’s a lot.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at