The fire driving Tiger’s comeback
Tiger Woods looked down and out.
We all saw the mug shots after he was picked up by the police for a DUI. Only a year ago we were reading about how a toxicology report showed he had painkillers, sleep drugs and an ingredient active in marijuana in his body when Florida police arrested him in May.
It’s incredible that, just on a year later, all the talk is about how he’s back contending for major titles.
Even at the start of this year, as he returned from his fourth back surgery, he faced an uncertain future. He may have dealt with his issues off the course, but there were still doubts over whether his back would hold up on the course after a fourth surgery. Back injuries are bad for golfers – and surgery is often equally as bad.
Determination and mindset are crucial.
Golf fans will remember that epic 2008 US Open playoff between Tiger and Rocco Mediate. Rocco suffered from a long-standing back injury which had needed surgery in the past and, even after that, it still flared up. He was once found immobile on the ground in a carpark because his back was gone. He had to lie there and ring for help. But a year after that he went toe-to-toe with Tiger at Torrey Pines in the 2008 US Open.
It was a real testament to his character. Rocco got his back treated every night during that US Open and Tiger was playing on one leg due to a torn cruciate ligament and a stress fracture in his tibia.
They were two wounded warriors but they also showed what can be achieved when you put your mind to something. And no one I’ve met in golf has the mental toughness of Tiger Woods.
That 2008 US Open was all about mind over body. I’d never seen Tiger in so much pain.
At one point in the second round he was visibly close to tears. He was a long way off the lead and I thought it was pointless to continue so I said to him, ‘Is it really worth it, Tiger?’
‘Fuck you,’ he replied. ‘I’m winning this tournament.’
And we all know now that he did, even though it took an extra 18 holes.
Tiger has had several surgeries during his career – for his knee, his back – and while each surgery is different the focus and determination to do the required rehab and recover from surgery requires special mental toughness. It’s something Tiger is better equipped for than most people.
There is no question that Tiger, at 42, is also in optimum condition for his age which helps immensely in the recovery process from surgery. Tiger knows the mind and body work best when you’re physically fit and he strives to be in the best shape he can be to enable him to perform his best.
So, considering the low point he’s come from, the fact he has now played consecutive majors where he has been in contention, he will now have real belief that he can add to his tally of 14 majors.
That belief will truly inspire him to even greater things.
THE YEAR OF THE TIGER
In many ways, the list of major venues for 2019 is tailor-made for Tiger.
After the Masters at Augusta, where his record is phenomenal, the next major is the USA PGA Championship at Bethpage in New York. Then it’s on to Pebble Beach for the US Open and, finally, a classic links course at Portrush in Northern Ireland.
It’s set to be an epic year and the golfing world will watch with huge interest. If TW can win at Augusta – and he’s proven he can compete there even when he’s not at his peak – who knows what could occur on these iconic venues of the type he loves playing.
Bethpage – the public course in New York with its rowdy fans – has treated Tiger well over the years. In 2002 he won the US Open when it was playing stupidly long thanks to heavy rain and in 2009 he was tied for sixth behind Lucas Glover after a bad start. Back when he won in 2002, Tiger was one of the longest drivers on tour – surpassed only by Long John Daly. These days he can’t hit it as far as Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka or Dustin Johnson but he can still get it out past 300 yards.
We’ve seen how he demolished the field at the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach. He loves that course. Having grown up in California, it’s like a second home to him even though it often delivers very bumpy greens, which he hates.
Portrush will be the interesting course on the major list. It’s a true links and favours players who can keep the ball low and cope with the elements. The wind and the landscape demand great feel and a wide variety of shots, especially ground shots, and Tiger has proven time and again that he’s one of the great links players.
He has the imagination, the array of shots and the control of his ball flight that you need on a links course. And distance off the tee won’t be such an issue – experience is what counts – though accuracy is required at Portrush.
A lot has been made of Tiger’s driving accuracy, especially during the final round of the PGA where he missed every fairway on the front nine. I think a lot of this is due to over-analysis. His game gets critiqued more than any player who’s ever played golf but you can’t win as many events as he has without driving it decent. Sure, he goes through stretches where he’s not driving it great but he drives the ball better than he gets credit for.
‘Fuck you,’ he replied. ‘I’m winning this tournament.’
The other thing people noted about the PGA was the fact he was three-over par after just two holes on the first day and ended up losing to Koepka by two shots.
This is one trademark of Tiger’s game that I remember well. He often made average starts to tournaments. That’s because, like anyone who takes pride in what they do, Tiger gets very nervous at the start of an event and it shows.
He also knows all too well that you can’t win the tournament on Thursday but you can sure as hell lose it. That leads him to make a more conservative start to the tournament than some other players.
THE CHASE FOR NO. 19
By the time next year rolls around it will be nearly a decade since the infamous scandal that threatened to derail Tiger’s career. That marked the beginning of the end for our player-caddie partnership and also our personal relationship, which deteriorated over the next 18 months.
Things ended between us when I started working for Adam Scott in 2011 (as an aside, after a couple of years in the wilderness, Adam got in contention at the Open Championship and briefly shared the lead at the PGA this year. That will re-ignite the flame and provide a great platform to build on for a run at the majors in 2019. Reuniting with his former coach, Brad Malone, will enhance his chances of elevating himself from that group of single major winners to multiple major champion).
In the wake of that scandal, it was obviously uncomfortable for Tiger to be under such intense scrutiny when he returned after seeking treatment at the start of 2010. But I was struck by how forgiving the fans were.
They seemed to be able separate Tiger the golfer from Tiger the person.
So, it’s no surprise that his comeback has driven renewed hype around golf – there were huge crowds at the PGA at Bellerive and TV ratings were back up. That’s because, despite everything, Tiger is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete and the only person who is ever going to threaten Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
No one I’ve met in golf has the mental toughness of Tiger Woods.
Back when we were working together we’d often have this conversation about how many majors he wanted to win. I believed that when he got to the target he wanted he would rack the cue – it’s just that we were always unclear on what that number would be.
Initially it was 20 and then he said one day, ‘No, Stevie, your favourite number is 21 and we’ll get to that’. I came back with: ‘No, you’re a great Michael Jordan fan, so why don’t we go for 23?’.
People respect him for what he’s achieved.
There’s now renewed energy because they believe they might witness the day most thought impossible even a year ago.
The day he hoists major trophy number 19.