Out of the Woods? Not just yet.

Northern Trust kicks off FedEx Cup Playoffs Thursday

JERSEY CITY, NJ. When Tiger Woods returns to action at The Northern Trust event this week there will be plenty of eyes watching to see if the current Masters champion is truly engaged and going to reconnect his game to the top tier players in the world.

Out of the Woods? Not just yet. Northern Trust kicks off FedEx Cup Playoffs Thursday
USA’s Tiger Woods tees off the 5th during day one of The Open Championship. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

The 15-time major championship winner commences play at 7:43 AM Thursday off the 10th tee and it will be quite interesting to see if Woods is finally over his post Masters doldrums. When last seen at The Open Championship at Royal Portrush just a few weeks ago, Woods was woefully unprepared — the rust was more than noticeable as his two round total was five shots beyond the cut line.

Tiger said afterwards he had been on holiday with family in Thailand following his mediocre tie for 21st at the US Open at Pebble Beach. Why Woods would take a holiday when the two Opens are no more than a month apart is baffling. Can one imagine Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan doing likewise?

Woods then left southeast Florida with daily temperatures in the 90s and headed to Northern Ireland on Sunday leading into championship week. His wherewithal to adjust to links golf, the local weather and the need to sufficiently understand the vagaries of a course never played previously were clearly on display. Given his lack of sufficient preparation the outcome was clearly preordained and Woods issued a Roberto Duran “no mas” in leaving the scene quickly for home. The most disappointing aspect was the search by Woods for excuses on his abysmal play when the lack of preparation was clearly within his control to shape differently.

The Northern Trust makes just Tiger’s 11th event this season and his first non-major start since playing in The Memorial this past May. Woods has cited the need to cutback his schedule and avoid the amount of events he played in 2018 which was 18. The rationale from Tiger has been too much golf is not good for him physically and he was simply over-golfed. The flip side of that equation is that not enough golf has Woods not sufficiently able to play at the highest of levels. Where is the balancing line? In Tiger’s mind less means more. From what we have seen recently — less means less results.

Until Woods made the announcement last week that he was participating in The Northern Trust and next week’s BMW Championship in the Chicago area there was no way to know for certain if he would be returning to competition this year.

Ranked as the number five player in the world the issue for Tiger is can he restart his golf season at Liberty National Golf Club this week? It’s clear after winning his first major in ten years this past April the desire to consistently be in the mix with the other top ranked players is clearly amiss. Is it simply mental? Physical?  Both? With Woods being ever so tight lipped — there’s no way to say with absolute certainty or to believe what he’s saying since Tiger can be utterly coy when circumstances warrant.

Woods is in 28th position going into the FedEx Cup playoffs and he will need to play well enough to secure a top 30 slot for a return to The Tour Championship and a defense of the title he won last year at East Lake. Should Tiger not make it to Atlanta because of continuous poor play the question will arise whether Woods as team captain should select himself a member of the American squad for the forthcoming Presidents Cup matches this December at Royal Melbourne?

Liberty National Golf Club
The 13th hole at Liberty National Golf Club. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

When Tiger won his 5th green jacket at Augusta the debate about surpassing the all-time professional major championship record of 18 set by Nicklaus was rekindled. Winning three majors to tie the Golden Bear will clearly be monumental task given his age and the wear and tear his body has endured over the years through several surgeries. 

The PGA Tour is also seeing a recent infusion of younger stars eager to claim stardom with the likes of Matt Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland making their presence known soon after joining the professional golf ranks in late June. The emergence of young talent is no different than when a fresh face named Tiger Woods entered professional golf on August 28, 1996 with his famous “hello world” press conference. At that time Woods was the hunter — now he is the hunted.

Out of the Woods? Not just yet. Northern Trust kicks off FedEx Cup Playoffs Thursday
USA’s Tiger Woods on the 2nd green at Royal Portrush Golf Club. (Richard Sellers/PA Wire)

Tiger still possesses a first rate iron game but his skills in driving the ball consistently has dogged him constantly. His vaunted prowess with the putter is also no where near what it was. In years past a Tiger Woods at 75% could still win tour events. That’s unlikely now.

The intimidation factor Woods held from his prime playing days is now in the rear view mirror and has little impact on the youngest of players competing now. Woods was an inspiration for their development as players but the road to the top of the golfing charts means having to surpass the likes of Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, to name those still in their primes and winning events.

Liberty National Golf Club
The 18th hole at Liberty National Golf Club. (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

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The last time Woods was at Liberty National he served as assistant captain for America’s Presidents Cup team in 2017. Tiger asked to be included and team captain Steve Stricker obliged him. The Woods who walked the fairways at that time was an unknown entity since his future playing days was anything but certain. Talk of permanent retirement — by Woods himself — was not ruled out unequivocally. 

Woods has fared well at Liberty National — his best finishes in the starting event for the FedEx playoffs came both times at the site — finishing tied for 2nd in 2009 and 2013 and in both cases missing a tying putt at the 72nd hole.

Tiger literally came out of the “Woods” in 2018 with solid play — returning in a consistent fashion in key events and ultimately winning his first tour event in five years. The return to the winner’s circle at Augusta clearly showed even his strongest detractors Woods had clearly returned . But now the question is whether that return was simply fleeting — a one-time resurrection for a man who is considered by many as the greatest to have ever played.

Liberty National Golf Club
(Photo by Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)

Those who have written Woods off have clearly erred from premature beliefs in years past. However, it’s clear Father Time is no friend for Tiger. Yes, there have been players who have won in their 40s and that includes major champions. But, that list is a very short one.

How Tiger fares this week will not be the definitive moment on his golfing future but failure to show some real competitive gusto will mean a growing chorus of naysayers seeing the outlines of irrelevancy becoming the dominant storyline going forward.

Time and tide wait for no man. Rest assured Tiger is well aware of that when play commences this Thursday in New Jersey.

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