In Good Conscience

Post-Bahamas, the problem is rust, not the eye of the Tiger

Tiger Woods was a cub in 1979 when the Canadian singer/ songwriter Neil Young recorded an album with the band Crazy Horse with the title Rust Never Sleeps.

For better, and sometimes for worse, Woods has transcended two decades in golf. He has, or he had, that aura about him that persuaded people who might never have held a club to appreciate that the American possessed talent so extraordinary that he is one in a lifetime at his game.

When he attempted his latest competitive comeback, in the Bahamas last weekend, one would-be longtime successor at the top, Jordan Spieth, observed: "What looks like happening is he's being patient. He's making a return, he's confident in his game, and what's really exciting for us is he can truly help get the numbers back up in golf."

Spieth, a Texan, won the Masters in 2015 before he turned 22. That made him the second-youngest champion at Augusta National since - well, you know who, Woods. And when Spieth won his second Major, the US Open that summer, the folks who crunch the numbers in the United States more or less said, forget about Woods, this new Texan is going to clean up the game.

Woods was still laid up that season with chronic back pain. The sport, being driven by Spieth and by Rory McIlroy, thought it no longer needed, nor wanted, Tiger.

Tiger Woods during the final round of the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas on Dec 4. He finished 15th and said: “Getting my legs back, focusing for a long period of time, these are the things I missed for a year and a half. I’m just so thankful to be back here playing again.” PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They have had their taste of life at the top. Yet Spieth, labelled as one of those who will shape the future of golf, acknowledges the effect that Woods has had in boosting attendances and television audiences.

Golf World magazine this week reported that those numbers are "staggering". Comparing US television viewing figures for the Hero World Challenge event in the Bahamas last year and this year, the "Tiger effect" increased the numbers by 190 per cent.

That is down to one thing, one person. The "Hero" is an invitational event hosted by The Tiger Woods Foundation.

Basically, it features the top 11 players of the year and invited guests, none bigger than Woods, who used his own event to test his own mind, body and soul after 16 months away following three bouts of back surgery.

Woods, who turns 41 on Dec 30, is putting everything back on the line: His body, his game, his reputation.

Woods wasn't fooling himself. His body is trimmer, his swing is modified, and he's searching for that old intensity and consistency under pressure.

He fought the rust. He shanked some chip shots like you have seldom seen Tiger Woods shank. He finished 15th of the 18 contenders. But he carded a respectable opening round of 73, a fabulous seven-under-par second round of 65, then a 70 and ultimately faded with a 76 on the final day.

Everybody had their say. Many wanted to rub shoulders again with golf's lapsed No. 1.

"Great to have you back Tiger - Special!" tweeted the US President-elect Donald Trump.

Woods wasn't fooling himself. His body is trimmer, his swing is modified, and he's searching for that old intensity and consistency under pressure.

"I wouldn't be doing this," he said on television, "if I didn't feel I could play at the highest level. I have too much pride."

And too much in the bank. Even after his US$100 million divorce (S$142.6 million) and after taxes that most people, presidential candidates excepted, must pay, Woods is reportedly worth a net US$826 million. Only Michael Jordan, whose business acumen is as good as his basketball skills, tops that in the wide world of sports.

Even during his fallow 16 months, after some sponsors talked about dumping him, Woods apparently pulled in US$60 million last year. He is still the only man out there who might catch Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 Majors. Woods, so far, has 14.

In a sense, that is the pulling power, the fascination.

It is eight years since Woods won a Major. Time waits for no man, and even Hank Haney, the man who coached Woods until 2010, commented this week: "I think Tiger (could win) more tournaments and at least one more Major, based on this performance."

But four more Majors to equal Nicklaus? Haney concluded: "I just think these top guys are so good that Tiger can't play with them."

It no longer matters what Haney, who no longer has direct access to the mind of Woods, thinks.

Before and after the event in the Bahamas, Woods articulated what he is going through.

"I'm just not quite there, but it's coming," he said. "The great thing (is that) I'm building and each day I've gotten a little bit stronger."

Yes, he felt tiredness towards the end of the four days. "I'm definitely not as fresh as I would like to be," he answered. "No matter how much you work out, it's very different than being in playing shape. These are all different things you can't simulate at home."

And you can't, even if you are a Spieth, a McIlroy or a coach like Haney, know what makes a man believe deep down that he can defy history and take out the Golden Bear, Nicklaus or even the accumulator, Sam Snead.

Snead, who won seven Majors, amassed a record 82 PGA tournament wins, three more than Tiger and nine more than Nicklaus.

And only four players - Tom Morris in the 1860s, Harry Vardon, Julius Boros and Mark O'Meara - won more than once after turning 41 years of age.

Those achievements must surely have a bearing on Woods whowas ranked 898th in the world before he played in the Bahamas.

However, he is singular in his inner belief. Recently, Charlie Rose, the doyen of TV chat show hosts in the United States, probed to see what self-doubt there might be in Woods.

"Have you accepted," he asked, "not reaching Jack Nicklaus' 18 Majors?"

"I've accepted," The Tiger growled, "that I'm going to get more."

Rust is for mortals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Post-Bahamas, the problem is rust, not the eye of the Tiger'. Print Edition | Subscribe