Sporting Life

Resilient Woods drives home a message: I'm far from finished

Calm down, people advise. It's only an 18-man exhibition event.

But still an English footballer tweets about him, and a member of the US Congress, a woman golfer, a university president, a Canadian sprinter and an actor best known for a drumming movie.

Golfers are the slowest men in spikes and yet the world was in a hurry to see one of them at work. The greatest swimmer ever was intrigued and the greatest clay-court player turned up to watch him at the Hero World Challenge. Sometimes the demographic of your audience speaks of your achievements.

All these people were fascinated by an almost has-been Tiger Woods, 41, which makes no sense except that many of them are fascinated by genius and he is one. Athletes, particularly, must love Woods' story because anyone who defies that *&^% called "time" is heroic in their book.

Take it easy, people suggest. He's held together by cheap glue.

Yeah, sure, his knees are as bad as Rafael Nadal's and his back is in worse shape than a furniture removalist's, and yet he was hitting drives with a ball speed of 286kmh, which had a 285-yard carry (third hole on Sunday), and was often flying further than Justin Thomas, who was eighth in driving distance on the USPGA Tour this year.

This old guy last played four rounds at an official event in August 2015, so far back that trump was still a mere verb. And yet he starts Sunday's front nine with three birdies and an eagle. Hell, it was just plain, ridiculous, brilliant showing off.

Comebacks always rivet us because the renewal of a damaged person is an essential part of the human story.

It was a Sunday that smelled of the old times but was truly a new day. He misses a birdie putt at the first hole and smiles. He goes over the green on the third and grins. This is more levity in a day than we used to see in a year. This is father Woods, with two kids in the gallery, who's just happy to be torquing his body into a non-wincing drive.

Don't get excited, cynics claim. He's past his prime.

Of course he is but no need to guess who is enjoying this comeback the most. The other kids. The golfing ones. Ricky Fowler, Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who were, respectively, eight, three, three and six when Woods won his first Major in 1997. Now they're alongside him, competing against him, and it has to be a little bit like hanging out with Elvis.

Of course, what this comeback means - he finished tied-ninth at eight-under - depends on who you ask. The devout fan will tell you that the man from Jupiter Island played as if he was from Mars. The realist will tell you he was 10 shots behind the winner, Fowler. The upbeat supporter will state he finished ahead of the world No. 1 (Dustin Johnson) and two of the year's Major winners (Thomas, Brooks Koepka).

The critic will mock his wooden chipping and the sceptic will raise an eyebrow at his par-five scoring which was five under over 20 holes. The average watcher will be stunned that a wayward chap can drive so straight. On Sunday he missed a single fairway and hit one second shot so high into the blue sky that it seemed moon-bound.

Chill, folks say. We've seen this story before.

But it doesn't matter, comebacks always rivet us because the renewal of a damaged person is an essential part of the human story. We cheer the idea of revival because we are all familiar with the feeling of loss. But in Woods' complicated case this is not just a restoring of an athlete but a redeeming of a man.

If he had flailed and failed it would have been dispiriting, like an old tree finally felled. Instead he has done enough to tease us and keep us interested. This was no fairy tale but certainly the first, feel-good page of a story of unknown length and uncertain ending which we will stay with because we now need to know...

Will he be OK when these young men, with elastic bodies and comparatively unscarred minds, show him no mercy? Will he be thrilled just to be in a Tour clubhouse and somewhere on a leaderboard? Will his technique hold and his smile last when the wins don't come?

Will he play less and still expect to soar when the prizes are biggest? Will his nerve hold when cameras stare and a title is on the line and he has a three-foot putt left? Will his body mutiny and will he have to stop swinging so bloody hard?

Relax, people say.

But you can't. Because he can't. Tiger Woods is who he is because he doesn't know how to take it easy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'Resilient Woods drives home a message: I'm far from finished'. Print Edition | Subscribe