Ben Everill / PGATour.com
The anticipation of the return of Tiger Woods has reached stratospheric heights. He has committed to the Safeway Open, which kicks off the 2016-17 season next week in California.
It has been over a year since Woods last hit a competitive ball on TOUR at the 2015 Wyndham Championship and over three years since his last win at the World Golf Championships – Bridgestone Invitational. It has been 20 years since he first won on TOUR.
For those of us who watched him through his peak – realizing it is more than eight years since he won a major seems surreal.
Some expect Woods to find his old dominant brilliance once more. Some are adamant his winning days are done. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, and we should embrace every chance we see him from now on.
Woods is 40 years old now. And has been through multiple back surgeries. To expect the dominance of his past is unrealistic. But if healthy, he can surely find the magic on occasions. Plenty have between 40 and 50. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46.
Just watching the man in recent times, you get the feeling he understands the realities. Where in the past Woods only played for the ‘W,’ he is most certainly in the middle of a transition in the game.
And early signs show it can still be a great transition for us all.
We should be excited to see him play again. We should wish him an injury-free career from here on out. But I was almost equally excited to see him as a vice captain at the Ryder Cup last week. And the news he will be in the same role at the 2017 Presidents Cup is very welcoming indeed.
There was once some fear Woods would not be the type of player who would revel in these sort of roles. While his giving to the game through his foundation has always been first class, there was a question mark on his role with active players on TOUR.
His performance at the Ryder Cup was telling. Woods was helping the likes of Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson on the range. In his prime, he would never have imparted wisdom this way. But there he was, with a smile, despite the fact not playing must have been burning him up inside.
“To be on a different side of it, to be on the vice captaincy side of it has meant so much to me, to get to know these guys on a different level and to know how hard a job it is to do this. What the vice captains and the captain ultimately have to decide; it’s tough,” Woods said after the Ryder Cup.
“As a player, all you have to do is get ready for the golf course. Just go out there and try and have your game and be ready when called upon. As a non-player, it’s very complicated. There’s a lot of things that I didn’t realize that went on, and very eye-opening and it was a great experience.
“It really was. I learned a lot and I became really close to a lot of these guys, and it’s been just an honor to be part of it. And to be part of getting to know these 12 guys, and these vice captains and our captain on a deeper level has meant so much to me; and the relationships that we’ve forged here this week and actually before this week, these are bonds that will last a lifetime.”
Woods was heavily invested in team strategy. He was a positive influence on all. He was not the old insular Tiger. Fellow vice captain Steve Stricker saw the value.
“It’s a great pickup for us on our side to have him commit to be at least an assistant captain,” Stricker said of Woods joining the Presidents Cup fold.
“Like I said before, I hope he’s playing. But what he showed last week was pretty impressive, as well. He really got invested in the team. He was working on pairings weeks, and maybe even a month ahead of time, possible pairings, depending on who we were going to pick as the other players on the team.
“The guys loved having him around there. He was perfect. I don’t know any other way of saying it. He was really good. And he spent a lot of time and energy in trying to help out Davis and the team.
“So we’re lucky. We’re lucky he will do it. Hopefully he’ll be a part of the team as a player. I mean, guys were ribbing him last week and he takes it and gives it back. I mean, it was a great bonding week for us as a team and he was a big part of that. Going forward, that can only help us as a team.”
Tiger Woods last played at the 2015 Wyndham Championship. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
World No. 1 Jason Day has talked about the relationship he has built with Woods over the last few years. He credits Woods with help in his mental strength game.
Woods used to beat players with his mental game before they’d even teed off. Now he’s advising others.
It is great for the game to see this transition. While we have plenty of young stars, our older generation guys are certainly doing their bit. One of the greatest things about the sport of golf is it is for life.
Now let’s be clear. This is not to say Woods has lost his competitive edge. When he finds his best golf, which we are sure he will at times, he will still strike fear in plenty.
Hopefully we see it sooner rather than later.
This year we saw 40-somethings Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson provide one of the all-time great major duels at The Open Championship. Who is to say Woods won’t provide a similar moment next season?
It was also great to see fellow major champions Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy taking up captain’s assistant roles for the International Team for the Presidents Cup. They, like Woods, will try to make the team in a playing capacity, but if not they’ll be ready to impart their wisdom to those who do.
At both ends of the age spectrum, the game is in good shape.