AUGUSTA, Ga. — Now it’s up to you, Tiger. You say your back is fine. Or so you think. You say your game is fine. Or so you hope. It’s time to show us if Tiger Woods can play like, well, Tiger Woods.
“I worked my ass off,” you told us Tuesday about returning to tournament play after the two-month break you chose — or maybe you needed — following a miserable couple of weeks in Phoenix and San Diego. We’re watching if the work pays off.
This is your tournament, isn’t it? The Masters, the one where you stomped the historic Augusta National course and the field, broke the scoring record and in effect broke its will? It was 1997, and after you told us “Hello, world” in that commercial, when you turned pro the late summer of ’96, you said it more dramatically and emphatically with your clubs.
Colin Montgomerie, who you were paired with, all but sneered when someone wondered if a rookie such as you could win the Masters. He found out. We found out. Golf found out.
They say you never lose greatness. You did lose your touch, however. So many problems, some of your own causing, some not. The injuries, the revolving line of teachers. And yes, you and public know the others, and so there’s no reason to you kick you again.
Golf, however, never stops kicking. It’s less a sport than a battle against one’s own flaws. It finds every weakness and punishes you.
You looked so unbeatable for so many years, especially here, deep within the Georgia Pines. Four Masters championships, 14 majors overall. Then you looked so beaten, battered, bewildered, taunted by the sport.
The critics said you were done at age 39 — he’s an old 39, they pointed out almost gleefully. This is your chance to prove them wrong.
Rory McIlroy is up there where you used to be, atop the world rankings. Jordan Spieth is the next great American star, or so we’ve been told. But we know there’s no one like Tiger Woods maybe, given all the factors, the Stanford background, the ethnic blend, the three straight U.S. Amateurs. Hell, neither Bobby Jones nor Jack Nicklaus were able to do that, and maybe nobody will ever do it again.
You brought game, but more importantly you brought people. Bill Veeck, the old Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians owner, used to say if you had to depend on baseball fans for support, you’d be out of business by Mother’s Day. And there are a great many more baseball fans than golf fans.
Golf, tennis, indeed any sport but particularly those without team loyalty, need individuals who attract the know-nothings, the curious, those who can’t tell a sand wedge from a sandwich or a volley from a rally. You were that individual, Tiger.
I remember the winter of ’98, when you were playing at Riviera, the Los Angeles Open, then when it was called the Nissan Open and now the Northern Trust Open. There were so many reporters from places like “Entertainment Tonight” and Variety, seats in the interview tent were reserved.
Some witless sort from one of those Hollywood gossip shows demanded to know what you did when you put the irons and woods away for the day. What were your interests and your love life? We’ve come to learn you prize your privacy, but she screamed out, “We have to know.”
What we have to know now is whether Tiger Woods, “excited to be back, playing at this level,” will play at the level he said he’s demonstrated in practice rounds on his home course in Florida when the gun goes off in the first major of the year.
“People would never understand how much work I put in to come back and do this again,” you said. But isn’t that what makes a champion — relentless practice, embellishing in-bred talent?
You implied the media scrutiny had you frustrated. “I know exactly what I’m doing out there,” you said. It didn’t look like it.
“I don’t really need someone else’s second-hand opinion of what I was thinking of. I know exactly what I was doing out there.”
Maybe, but of late, you weren’t doing it very well at all. The time has come to convince us again.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com. Email him at email@example.com.