JERSEY CITY, N.J.—There are certain luminaries, be they musicians, politicians, comedians and yes, athletes, who emit a distinct aura, their cultural transcendence so great the light never dims, no matter the regularity of appearance. In golf, no one radiates this like Tiger Woods. Which is funny, because this year, perhaps more than any other, made him look human.
There was the poor showing at Torrey Pines, his first PGA Tour start in 17 months. An aborted appearance at Dubai. Withdrawing from the Masters, his third Augusta absence in four years. Undergoing his fourth back procedure. The arrest for DUI, and subsequent release of the police video. Entrance into a drug rehabilitation center.
It wasn't just that these episodes happened. It was what they symbolized and implied. Forecasting his future is nothing new for fans, media, even fellow players, but instead of wondering what tomorrow will bring, the conversation turned into a eulogy. Hell, his game and physicality were put on the back burner; following his Memorial Day incident, we speculated, and genuinely worried, about his mental health.
For a guy who spent a career building an air of mystique and invincibility, he was engulfed in a sea of vulnerability.
And yet, there he was on Tuesday at Liberty National, brandishing the trademark swagger of yesteryear. For all the conjecture on demons and obstacles battled, the 41-year-old had the cheery demeanor one has on the first day of a week-long vacation. He traded slaps, handshakes and barbs with both Presidents Cup teams. Woods treated them like colleagues; it's clear they still view him with wide-eye marvel, the type of respect given to a living legend.
The same could be said for the crowd. Tiger's litany of issues, both of this year and past, aren't matters that play well with the public. But if any backlash does exist, it wasn't on display in Jersey City, as the 14-time major winner—not Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas or Rickie Fowler or Dustin Johnson—received the most cheers and autograph requests when emerging on the range. It was telling that, out of the all-stars and dignitaries in the vicinity, only one had a body guard. Take a wild guess who that officer was protecting.
Not that he would necessarily need it. On his website last week, Woods mentioned he's intensified his workouts, and it shows. The guy makes Brooks Koepka look like Kevin Durant. An impressive physique doesn't necessarily translate to lower scores, but it does put those "broken body" catcalls to bed.
Make no mistake, it wasn't as if Tiger's appearance was like jumping into a time machine. Watching Woods linger around the range like a swing coach or agent, rather than brandish a club in his hand, is a bizarre sight. That Phil Mickelson, six years Woods' elder, will be teeing it up while Woods serves as a glorified spectator is another truth stranger than fiction, akin to a movie that explores an alternate historical timeline. Moreover, though he looked from afar as if he could tee it up tomorrow, Woods remains without a timetable for a return to action.
For the moment, those are semantics. Tiger Woods just suffered a year from hell, the ramifications of these experiences unknown. But through all those knockdowns, he's still standing. It's a start.