Wishing Woods Well

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Tiger's walk-off at Riviera shows he can no longer compete at the elite level.
Posted on
February 20, 2024
by
M. James Ward in
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Pacific Palisades, CA. No athlete wants to be described in the past tense. None has an affinity to hear about how great they once were.

The passion they possessed - the will to overcome obstacles that others could never surpass – is what separates the truly great from those aspiring to be as much.

The return to the PGA TOUR at Riviera last week by Tiger Woods was a clear indicator the 15-time major winner is no longer competitive in any real sense of that word.

In his last nine official tour starts, he has played the weekend only four times. Hard to imagine that when the 2024 Masters is played it will mark five years since he slipped on his fifth green jacket.

Wishing Woods Well
(Matt Slocum/AP)

Since 2014 he has played in 22 majors and only finished in the top ten three times. In that span of events, he has missed the cut nine times.

To put matters in perspective – when Woods was in his prime competitive days he only missed three cuts between 1997 and 2013.

The gushing of fans and the fawning of absent-minded media demonstrated a complete amnesia to the reality that Woods no longer has the kind of golf capable in competing over a 72-hole format where cuts are part of the format.

When Tiger mentioned several months ago he would be returning to play he added the caveat his limited schedule would likely only mean one event per month in combination with the four majors.

The cumulative nature of the surgeries he has had have clearly altered the majesty of his once rapid hip turn and deliverance of the club into a golf ball at the highest of speeds.

When Woods was at Riviera it was clear he still commands the public's attention and that of the television networks. But it's also clear he cannot put on the scoreboard the kind of numbers that weekly PGA TOUR events produce. Those within the ropes know that Woods is more brand name than actual Tiger on the prowl.

The Tiger of 2024 is fighting to simply make cuts - not to seriously contend. Does anyone believe Woods has the wherewithal to shoot a 62 like winner Hideki Matsuyama did in claiming the Genesis title?

The level of play on the PGA TOUR is THAT good - and Tiger played a central role in elevating that standard.

When Woods played in the Hero World Challenge event this past December in the Bahamas, he was 20 shots behind winner Scott Scheffler in the limited field event. If that event had a full field, he would have likely missed the cut.

The swing speed remains good but Woods doesn't possess the putting prowess that once defined his greatness. His once all-world iron play still has moments but then there is the most recent memory of Tiger shanking his approach to the 18th hole during the first round at Riviera.

(AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

What motivates Tiger to keep believing he can be a factor again in the biggest of events?

Determination.

That singular aspect is what drove Woods to go beyond when others had reached their respective plateaus.

But there's a fine line between meaningful determination and sheer denial no matter the internal willpower. The results are just not forthcoming.

Years ago, when attending a Frank Sinatra concert, I went with friends from different generational time lines and we observed a singer revered for his prowess but then not able to simply remember the words to his own songs.

For some fans it did not matter that Old Blue Eyes was not in the best of form – it simply mattered that they saw him up close.

The same thing has happened with Woods. The fan base he has cultivated and the adoring television networks are so keen to show him do anything when on the golf course that it becomes a head scratching moment for those who see the situation much more clearly.

Walking and playing 72 holes golf at the elite professional level is not for the faint of heart. To paraphrase Hall-of-Famer NFL coach Bill Parcells – "you are what your scorecard says you are."

Woods still commands the highest of attention because of his past successes. Undoubtedly, he will be asked by the PGA of America to Captain the next USA team for the 2025 Ryder Cup matches at Bethpage.

Wishing Woods Well
(Peter Byrne/PA)

That announcement should happen sometime early in 2024 and it's hard to imagine Tiger will opt to forego the honor in leading a USA team to reclaim the Cup lost in Rome.

Years ago Jack Nicklaus stated he did not wish to play elite competitive golf if all his role was being a ceremonial - hint non competitive – player.

For Woods to even remotely believe he can demonstrate a pathway of success will take a more dedicated and focused effort. Given the number of surgeries it's hard to envision Tiger will ever come close to the rigorous preparations he put into his golf game prior to arriving at the first tee of a competition.

Hard to fathom how Woods believes he can catch lightning in a bottle simply by waving a magical wand to instantly improve his scoring.

Is it inconceivable Woods will retire from active competition? No, but it's not something that can be entirely dismissed.

Tiger's place in golf is forever secure. He is certainly among the four players on golf's Mount Rushmore.

But present-day golf at the highest levels is not about romancing and living in the past. It's about demonstrating a clear capacity to be ever ready for the kind of scores routinely shot each week on the PGA TOUR.

Woods has defied his critics over the years and the last hurrah at the 2019 Masters was likely the final march to a major triumph. His fan base simply believes he can summon the effort one more time and beat back the inevitable time clock all great athletes must face.

I wish Woods well. His play between the 1997 Masters and the 2008 U.S. Open playoff win on one functional leg is arguably the finest consistent golf ever played in such a time frame.

All the greats in any sport have an unshakeable belief in themselves - pushing boundaries instead of being contained by them.

Wishing Woods Well
(AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

At 48 Woods may have plans to join the ranks of the Champions Tour when he turns 50. There's no question the format for those events can be more conducive to him with 54-hole tournaments and the wherewithal to use a power cart when competing.

The curtain is now nearly descended. Obituaries are never easy to swallow for any athlete but I can only hope Woods understands that memories of the past cannot be rekindled simply through force of will.

Given Tiger's past discipline in pushing himself it's likely he will keep going – believing he can magically return to past form.

Fans and television networks will no doubt follow each and every step - no matter how tentative from Woods.

But the more likely scenario that takes place is that when the eye of the Tiger ceases to be the hunter - he becomes the hunted.

Such is the law of the sports jungle - a place where Tiger was the big cat others feared for so many years.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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