This Tiger Woods comeback attempt might have actual staying power


Tiger Woods is making a comeback! 

No, don't run away. Please, don't say that you've been hearing this for many years, and it always turns out to be a total false alarm or an utter disaster. 

Who wants to raise hopes only to see another back surgery and yet another long, hobbling hiatus from the sport? 

This is different. I semi-sort-of promise. What Woods did in the Bahamas playing in his own 18-star Hero World Challenge invitational for four days last weekend was remarkable. He wasn't in any pain. He played all four days and finished strongly. He showed a somewhat-new swing with no "reverse C" at all, which should take pressure off his lower back on which he's had four surgeries. He also appears to have tweaked his stance to take strain off his much-troubled left knee. 

Many in golf would have settled for a Tiger Woods who did not walk, bend and wince like a 90-year-old. Great, at 41, he may have found a swing that won't put him back in the hospital. Bravo, Tiger may not need a walker just to get around the course with his kids! 

But that was just the start. In a field with Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, Woods shot 69-69-75-68 for an eight-under-par 280 for ninth place. Woods was tied with Matt Kuchar, ahead of hot-shot Thomas and eight, nine and 11 shots ahead of Johnson, Stenson and Koepka, the current U.S. Open champion. 

It doesn't matter much where they played or that Fowler shot a course-record 61 on Sunday. So, it wasn't Bethpage Black. They all played the same course. 

Most meaningful for any long-term optimism, Woods ripped 335-yard drives that finished alongside most of the best of the current golf crop. Woods' ball speed topped 180 mph off the tee, which would have ranked him in the top 25 last year. 

Woods reached par 5s with long irons. He didn't yip any putts. He did chunk a chip shot, so his scary case of nerves around and on the greens in recent years may not be fixed. He showed no pain or limp. He looked a lot like Tiger Woods, though when he took his hat off on the 18th green there wasn't a lot of hair. 

"I'm excited," he said. "This is the way I've been playing at home." 

Woods has misdiagnosed his health, and his golf future, so atrociously for almost a decade that there's no reason to take any self-evaluation at face value. 

But, this time, the eye test and the scoreboard backed him up. 

All this, of course, proves nothing. But it certainly whispers some promises. 

When planning his schedule, now focused on major championships and little else, Woods said, in a post-round TV interview, "Play enough, but don't play too much." Figuring out that balance, after taking more than 10 months away from the game after his back-fusion surgery, is critical. Few think he'd have any chance at a meaningful comeback - ever - if he needed yet another back surgery. 

But, until days ago, I thought his career as even a Top-50 player was done. After all his physical miseries over the past dozen years, I doubted that I'd ever see him go after a drive as hard, or compete against current stars as credibly, or come up with a swing that is so "safety-first," as he just displayed in the Bahamas. 

The only player who has ever come back from worse injuries than Woods is probably Ben Hogan. And Hogan got hit by a Greyhound bus and almost died. 

What can derail Tiger? Are you kidding? Anything. Everything. Just trying to play enough golf, and hit enough balls, spend enough time standing on a putting green, may be enough to make his back scream at him again. But Woods doesn't think so. 

"I knew I could play four days . . . I was a little nervous," Woods said on NBC. "I've had some tough times over the years with my back . . . then finally come out on the good side. 

"There were times the world seemed very small. Day-to-day stuff was very difficult for me to do . . . Now I'm able to sit back and enjoy it more, talk to more people. It's been really nice." 

Any pain at all? 

"No," he said, adding, "just pain in my head," referring to his bad shots. 

For several years, self-deprecation has become a new verbal utility club for Woods. All the greats, including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, eventually learned to alter their tone when discussing themselves to accommodate reality. Tiger may have taken the longest, but he's gotten there. He wears his pain-weary modesty quite well. He doesn't bite on silly questions about how many more majors he wants to win. He's been too close to Never Play Again for that. 

Everyone knows what he wants. Tiger just wants his beloved golf game back - not 100 percent of it, because that's obviously gone, but a credible competitive game that he can take out to big events and be a viable part of the sport again. Like most fans, he wants to know what he could craft, invent and improvise with all his knowledge and imagination, if he had no pain. Whatever that is, he'll take it. 

Is Tiger ever going to win another major? It's been so long since he was under that kind of pressure, and so many parts of his game and body have deteriorated since then, that it's very doubtful. But a week ago, it seemed cruelly fanciful. 

Will he ever win another Tour event? The smart money might say, "No." But as long as he shows progress, as long as he frees up his mind and plays the game, rather than constantly over-analyzing every swing, it's imaginable again. 

The huge question, bigger than beating the yips or facing the pressure of being somewhere in contention on Sunday, is whether he can stay healthy. At all. 

Woods has psychological scars from his image-crushing sex addiction years ago. But his surgical scars are unprecedented; no golfer has ever pushed his body beyond its limits as often, or in as many places, as Woods. Or failed to give himself enough time to heal when he returned. Bad judgment? Hubris? Penance? 

Shooting eight-under-par with booming drives on a balmy island resort course in winter may not seem like much, until you remember Woods's list of documented injuries. His lower back had surgery for a pinch nerve (2014), two follow-up procedures on the same spot and anterior lumbar interbody fusion surgery ('17). 

His left knee had a cyst removed and fluid drained ('02), a ruptured ACL ('07), arthroscopic surgery and ACL repair ('08) and an MCL sprain ('11) plus a double stress fracture of the left tibia which he endured to win the 2008 U.S. Open. 

He's also been sidelined by an inflamed facet joint in his neck ('10), a muscle injury in his shoulder blade ('06), an elbow strain ('13), a strained left Achilles ('11) and a reinjured Achilles ('12). 

Five months ago, after a DUI arrest, later reduced to a guilty plea for reckless driving, he blew 0.00 for alcohol, but received "professional help" to manage medication for back pain and a sleep disorder. Later, he announced he completed a "private intensive program." Gee, after a decade of surgeries, and winning a 91-hole U.S. Open on a broken leg, how could potentially addictive pain meds have snuck up on him? 

The way to wager is that some part of Woods breaks again, that he has to withdraw because he can't walk or swing. Or his caddie, once again, has to pick the ball up out of the hole for him. 

But the way to hope, at least for me, is that sometime next year his name shows up, even if briefly, on a leader board somewhere. Tiger Woods was born to play golf - both to get and give joy. Let him finish it upright and walking straight.


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