ADARE, Ireland – Against a gray sky backdrop and an adoring Irish gallery in excess of 35,000 people as he completed his second tour of the majestic Adare Manor, Tiger Woods returned to center stage.
The last time we saw the 15-time major, he was limping, both literally and figuratively, on his way to a third-round 79 at the PGA Championship before giving up before the final round.
Woods passed on the US Open, which was no surprise given the proximity of the championship on the calendar to Southern Hills. In April, however, he did commit to compete in this week’s JP McManus Pro-Am, before The Open. Not surprisingly, given his affinity for McManus and the elegant event, Woods kept his commitment.
On Tuesday, he was optimistic and forward-thinking, even as he cleaned the rust off a game that seemed a long way from being ready for a major championship.
The rebuilt champion has been clear since returning to competition following last year’s horrific car accident and the myriad surgeries that followed. His schedule and what remains of his competitive fortunes will be a dramatically reduced version of what we’ve seen from him historically.
The Majors would be the starting point, followed by the Genesis Invitational and the Hero World Challenge, both events organized by Tiger’s charitable foundation. But as limited as that lineup may seem, even that schedule seems overly optimistic.
After all, he skipped last month’s specialty.
“The plan was to play the US Open, but physically I couldn’t do it. Physically I couldn’t have done that,” he said before Round 2 in Ireland. “I had some problems with my leg and I would have put this tournament [The Open Championship] in danger, so there is no reason to do it.”
Although Tiger spoke optimistically about his body and his game as he gingerly walked around Adare Manor with the help of a golf cart, it was abundantly clear that his right leg is still a work in progress. As his first 71 at the Masters in demanding conditions and his 69 at round two at Southern Hills showed, there’s still a mark on those championship tires. But the real question is how many miles are left?
“I don’t know. I really don’t,” he admitted. “If you had asked me last year if I would play golf again, all my surgeons would have said no. But here I am playing golf.” [three] Great championships this year.
“I’ll always be able to play golf, whether it’s this leg or someone else’s leg or a fake leg or different body parts that have been put on or fused together, I’ll always be able to play. Now, if you say play at the championship level, well, that window is definitely not as long as I would like it to be.”
In hindsight, it was a tremendously refreshing point of view from a player who spent most of his career not allowing himself to look beyond the moment. It was a unique tool for Tiger that allowed him to compartmentalize the onslaught of pressure that comes with being a singular talent: always staying in the moment.
But now, in what he clearly recognizes as the twilight of his career, the prospect can be liberating. Tiger acknowledges his limitations, but he is far from limited by them.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Tuesday’s media meeting was the notion that, despite all his physical restrictions, he still enjoys the process and the outcome.
“It has been worth it. It’s been tough,” said Woods, a three-time Open champion who has won twice at the Old Course (2000, 2005). “I’ve had very difficult days and days where getting off the couch is a hell of a chore, and that’s the way it is.
“I have my own two legs, which I’m telling you, I’m not going to take it for granted anymore, some people do. But people who have been close or have lost a limb understand what I’m saying, but you have tough days and you also have great days.”
The prioritization of The Open Championship was as calculated as it was convenient. the 150the Playing the oldest major in the game at the House of Golf would always be worth it, but the topographical fact that the Old Course will be the most user-friendly of all the courses Tiger plays this year is just as compelling.
This year was always going to be about getting to St. Andrews, but the road to Scotland is a stark reminder of just how tenuous Tiger’s schedule will be going forward.
It all promises to be an increasingly limited public view of the game’s most dynamic and compelling player, and why we should all take a cue from the massive Irish galleries this week and make the most of those moments when we have them.