What Should We Expect from Tiger

“I’m baaaack!”

That’s not exactly the way Tiger announced his planned return to the PGA Tour but you get the idea.

As he often does, Tiger communicated with the world through his website and after weeks of teasing us with video of him hitting wedges, then working up to full iron shots and eventually drivers, he left us hanging for a while about when he might actually play golf.

Well the speculation is over. Tiger will tee it up at the Hero World Challenge in December.

Does that storyline sound familiar?

It was just a year ago that Tiger announced a comeback after supposedly successful back surgery – a tune-up at the Hero, then a return to a full PGA Tour schedule in February.

Moments like this have plagued Tiger’s career over the past four years

We know that turned out to be too much too soon for his back and Tiger was lost again for the remainder of the 2017 season with another surgery and the shocking incident this past Memorial Day when Woods was found in his car in the middle of the night in a drug-induced fog. Arrested, humiliated and addicted to painkillers, it sure looked like the end of the road for the world’s second greatest golfer. (Hey, it’s my story and we can have the Tiger vs Jack argument another time.)

Now it’s just months after the DUI and instead of writing Tiger’s golfing obituary, we’re left to wonder who will actually tee it up in December. Will it be the Tiger of old – finally free of injury and ready to resume his domination over the PGA Tour? Or will it be old Tiger – his 42-year old body hobbled by a host of nagging aches and pains and a surgically repaired back that may or may not withstand the stress of 125 mph swing speeds?

Then there’s the psychological damage.

Tiger has endured more than most in his career – the tabloid scandals, a messy divorce, the death of his father and mentor, a break-up with girlfriend Lindsey Vonn, the DUI and drug addiction – all the while living in a celebrity obsessed world that can’t get enough of him and his lifestyle. He craves privacy but, despite the best efforts of him and his agent, all his weaknesses and transgressions are laid bare in the public spotlight.

Yet he has shown over the past two decades an almost super-human ability to compartmentalize all that when he’s on the golf course. It appears that nothing bothers him, nothing can stand in the way of another win, another trophy and one more fat cheque to add to his bank account. I don’t believe any golfer, past or present, has been stronger mentally than Tiger Woods.

And it’s not just overcoming whatever personal demons he’s dealing with at the moment either. It’s the mental ability to thoroughly control everything and everybody in his orbit. The old Tiger absolutely knew in his mind that he could beat every player on the course and the other players knew it as well. It’s been his super power. Nicklaus had it too.

Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth

So does Tiger 2018 still have it?

That will be the biggest question of this latest comeback. Presuming his body is healed and he can swing freely, it will take some time to work his way back to being competitive. Tiger likes to say he needs to get his reps in on the practice range but there’s no substitute for playing. Until he’s tested in a number of pressure situations, he, and we, won’t know how he’ll fare.

All of this sounds like a product that’s being developed in a lab – something that will be rolled out when it’s ready. However, there are a few dozen players on Tour that might have something to say about that.

The current young guns are fearless. They grew up idolizing Tiger and wanting to play like him but they never competed against him when he was at his peak. All they’ve seen are flashes of brilliance – a pair of top 5 Masters finishes and the five win season in 2013 – followed by chip yips, wonky driving, WD’s and then nothing. They’re not afraid of him.

Sergio was afraid of Tiger. Jordan Spieth is not. Neither is Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama or Rory McIlroy. Or most of the guys under 30. They’ll be curious and appreciative for all he’s done for the professional game and the huge purses they play for each week. But once they tee it up, all of that will be forgotten and it will just be them against some 42-year old who used to be really good.

Tiger has said in rare candid moments that he’s not sure if he’ll ever win again, not sure if his body can withstand the rigors of the Tour or the stress of major championships. He says he’s OK if he never wins again but he also acknowledges that he’s not ready for a rocking chair yet either.

He certainly has nothing to prove. Other than chasing Nicklaus’ major record, he pretty much owns every record in golf. While none of that can be taken away, he still seems to have a serious desire to compete for more. We saw some of that fire at the recent Presidents Cup when Tiger took on an Assistant Captains role for his friend Steve Stricker.

Vijay Singh won many times in his 40’s

Vijay Singh fashioned a World Golf Hall of Fame career with the majority of his wins coming after he turned 40. Mark O’Meara won majors in his 40’s and players like Davis Love and Kenny Perry have shown themselves to still be competitive on the regular circuit even after they ascended to the cushier confines of the Champions Tour. And then there’s the Energizer Bunny himself, Bernhard Langer, still dominating the Senior circuit in his late 50’s and putting up a good fight whenever he tees it up against the young guns in majors.

Tiger beat all those guys. Often. So he’s got to believe that life isn’t over at 42. If they can do it, Tiger can do it better.

Maybe it will be the challenge of beating the young guys that motivates him to find the edge that leads to winning.

However, even if healthy and mentally ready, Tiger will have to overcome one final obstacle that could stand in the way of carving out a second career: his own stubbornness. For years he persisted in hitting his driver to prove that he was still the Big Dog, even when a controlled 3-metal would have left him in better position. It cost him victories.

The young guys on Tour are hitting the ball obscene distances and even with all his talent, Tiger’s 42-year old body won’t be able to keep pace. There’s nothing wrong with that. Success isn’t measured by driving distance.

So, what should we expect from Tiger in 2018?

I believe he’s been teasing us as he often does, that he’s more ready than he wants anyone to know, and that it’s only going to take a handful of starts before he’s contending on Sunday afternoon. For sure he’ll pick his spots, playing tracks where he’s won multiple times before, like Bay Hill, Firestone, Torrey Pines and of course Augusta.

Can he win and can he win majors?

It’s tough for anybody to win on the PGA Tour and only four majors are up for grabs each year. If Tiger can win regular Tour events, he’s probably the player least fazed by the added pressures of majors. He’s won 14 and seems to relish the atmosphere.

My prediction: If he can remain healthy, and that’s still the big unknown, Tiger will win again in 2018. His best chance for a major will be the Masters, which will come awfully soon in his comeback, but if he’s in the field, he’s always a threat. Put it this way, I wouldn’t bet against him.

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