Tiger Woods: 'He's a Ghost'
Tiger Woods has not played golf competitively since Aug. 23, 2015, when he shot an even-par 70 in the final round of the Wyndham Championship to tie for 10th at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C. He entered the weekend tied for the lead but finished four strokes behind 51-year-old winner Davis Love III. Since then, Woods, now 40, has undergone a second microdiscectomy, and almost two months after that a third "procedure" on his back. Golf has largely moved on, ushering in a new era with Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory all trading headlines and the top spot in the World Ranking. Woods, by many accounts, seems to have become as private as ever. In the 20-mile strip of the Sunshine State between Jupiter and West Palm Beach to the south, where you can't go to the local Chipotle without bumping into a tour player, Big Cat sightings have become increasingly scarce since he has been on the shelf. These days, he leads an existence closer to Bruce Wayne than Batman.
"I never see him," says the coach of one major champion, among other big-name clients, who lives in the area and is well-connected. "You don't hear anyone saying they see him. He's a ghost. He might as well be Ben Hogan."
Adds a trainer based in the area who works with a number of tour players: "He's more introverted than ever. He doesn't show up anywhere anymore."
Indeed. Fifteen minutes north of Woods' 12-acre, 10,000-square-foot, $60-million compound is the Medalist, Woods' home club. In April, there were reports that Woods was regularly grinding out four-to-five-hour practice sessions. By late July and early August, best anyone could tell is that Woods, after announcing that he would sit out the rest of the season and re-evaluate in the fall, hadn't been there in a couple of months.
"We've been trying to set up some games, but it's been tough recently," says Rickie Fowler, who also plays out of Medalist and is an active member in the club's affairs. "Scheduling and things."
‘His back is so sore. I think we’ll see him sometime next year, but I’m not sure when.’ —Jason Day
Woods doesn't need to travel even that far to do some work. He has a simulator and short-game area to go with a sweet practice facility at home, but that tops out around 150 yards. And even when he was at Medalist, the reports weren't promising.
One former player, who has multiple wins on tour and lives in the area, says, "I never hear good stuff."
A former Wall Streeter who played college golf and still carries a low-single-digit handicap says he saw Woods earlier this summer and adds, "It was so bad it almost looked like he can't play golf anymore."
Another source adds that the last few times Woods was practicing, the range sessions were brief and the shots scattered: "He used to hit 3-wood up into the back corner of the range, same spot every time. Last time, they were all over the place. It wasn't good. Not like the old days." (Woods declined comment for this story, as did his caddie, Joe LaCava, and swing coach Chris Como.)
Woods' restaurant, The Woods Jupiter, is a bustling, sleek sports-bar-meets-nightclub a couple of miles away from his compound on Jupiter Island. "We see him quite often!" says one of the bartenders, though she can't recall the last time her boss was in. Neither can many of the patrons I talk to. Of the half-a-dozen regulars I speak with, only one has seen him—once. It is true, however, that the staff has seen him often. But not everybody has a private table in the back that's out of sight of the rest of the patrons. "There's been so many rumors about secret doors and stuff, but most of it is untrue," an employee says. (Notice he said most, not all?)
In the old days, Woods was a rock star wherever he went, doing things that had never been done in the game and hanging out with guys like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, taking golf to a place it had never imagined.
Sure, Woods is rehabbing a few hours a day, and he keeps tabs on the game by texting Fowler, Keegan Bradley and others like Love, with whom he recently shared opinions on Davis' captain's picks for the Ryder Cup. (Woods was a vice captain for this year's team.) He's also heavily involved with his foundation. Other activities include his course-design business, an upcoming book on the 20-year anniversary of his victory in the 1997 Masters, and other sponsor appeasements. But by nature these are things that can largely be handled in a series of phone calls and visits that do not occupy the bulk of one's time.
‘We’ve been trying to set up some games, but it’s been tough.’ —Rickie Fowler
Inside the walls of his home is where Woods tends to spend a lot of his time, say those close enough to the Woods camp to know but far enough from his reach (not employees) that they're willing to speak. That has been the pattern in the past.
"He watches a ton of sports," says Woods' previous coach, Sean Foley, who was let go by Woods in August 2014. Adds Hank Haney, who split from Woods in May 2010 and later wrote a book, The Big Miss, about his years coaching Woods: "He played a lot of Navy SEALs-type video games. He'd have the headset on and everything. And trust me, he's good at them."
Others who have stayed with Woods also say that often he will order in food instead of going out, spend hours watching programs about the SEALs and sometimes suddenly disappear elsewhere within the house for long stretches without a word.
TIME WITH KIDS
None of this is to say Woods is a total recluse. He has joint custody of his two kids, Sam Alexis, 9, and Charlie Axel, 7, with ex-wife Elin Nordegren, who lives nearby. When he has the children, Woods is by all accounts very much the doting dad. That includes taking them on a recent lobster-fishing trip to the Bahamas, where he often keeps his boat, Privacy, docked in the marina behind Justin Rose's house, or attending Sam's soccer games or Charlie's golf tournaments.
On one such occasion in June, Charlie was playing in a nine-hole U.S. Kids Golf tournament at Mayacoo Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, and Woods was there to watch. He walked slowly and took a knee or chair whenever he could because of his back, say observers, but otherwise was a parent like anyone else (except for the two bodyguards who accompanied him). Nordegren was also there.
"One of the guys I was with asked him when he's coming back, and he said, 'Man, I'm trying. I'm really trying,' " says Mike Forgatch, whose daughter was also playing in one of the events that day. "He was trying to keep a low profile but wasn't annoyed at all. A couple of the kids went over, and parents were asking if they could take a picture with him, and he did a few of those. Then we had lunch at the halfway house, and 10 minutes later this big, red helicopter took off from somewhere on the property, and he was gone. We've run into Keegan Bradley and Camilo Villegas at Chipotle, Ernie Els at the movies, Jesper Parnevik at Five Guys. We saw him at the kids' tournament or have seen him at his daughter's soccer games but have never seen him around town."
There have been a number of sightings and news (see below).
Oct. 20, 2015
Woods speaks at a press conference in Mexico City for the Bridgestone America's Golf Cup and conducts a clinic, though he does not hit any shots.
Oct. 25, 2015
Woods attends a private screening with family and friends of the movie "Spectre." Also that day, he is on hand when U.S. women's soccer stars Carli Lloyd and Abby Wambach meet his daughter's team.
Lindsey Vonn tells CNN she has no regrets over her relationship with Woods, which ended in May: "I loved him, and I still love him. I had an amazing three years with him but, you know, sometimes things just don't work out. ... I think we're both in a pretty good place."
Dec. 1, 2015
Appearing at a press conference in advance of his Hero World Challenge at Albany in the Bahamas, Woods remains unclear about his return and says any more wins in his career would be "gravy." Afterward, he gives a series of one-on-one interviews to select media, doing so while stretched out on a recliner because he says his back is too sore for him to stand for long periods.
Dec. 24, 2015
Woods posts a photo with his kids and three dogs to his Twitter account.
Dec. 30, 2015
After turning 40, Woods celebrates by having dinner with family and friends at his restaurant.
Jan. 7, 2016
Woods sees a screening of the movie "13 Hours."
Jan. 11, 2016
Woods poses for a photo with Michelle Wie at an event for his foundation.
Feb. 24, 2016
Amid reports that he can barely sit up and has trouble moving, Woods tweets a Zapruderesque video showing him hitting a single 9-iron on a simulator at his house. The tweet reads, Progressing nicely.
March 2, 2016
Woods tweets that he is on his way to Bluejack National, his course outside Houston, for the first round at the Playgrounds Course. He says that he is getting more fit every day.
March 9, 2016
Woods spends part of the day with Rolex, a longtime sponsor.
April 5, 2016
Though he isn't playing in the Masters, Woods attends the annual Champions Dinner.
April 21, 2016
Woods appears at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley Golf Club in Graniteville, S.C., to give a clinic and hits a number of shots with a wedge, 2-iron and driver, the images appearing on a grainy cellphone video. Reports surface that he has taken part in long practice sessions at Medalist, also playing some holes.
April 25, 2016
On opening day at his first U.S. course design, Bluejack National, Woods plays five holes.
April 29-30, 2016
In Las Vegas for his annual Tiger Jam event to benefit his foundation, Woods plays poker and has a 30-minute range session, hitting his driver 285-290 yards.
May 16, 2016
Appearing at a media day for the Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club, a tournament that benefits his foundation, Woods dumps three balls into the water from 100 yards.
June 20-26, 2016
Woods' week at Congressional includes holding a press conference and tending to other foundation and sponsor needs.
The theme throughout that timeline: Woods hasn't been playing much golf, certainly not publicly. In late July, Jack Nicklaus said that he occasionally trades texts with Tiger. "He's struggling," Nicklaus said.
"I don't understand what he's struggling with, but I know he's struggling, and he would be playing if he could play."
Jason Day often texts with Woods and has visited him in South Florida but doesn't dive deeper than surface level on personal matters.
"I think he misses being out here, which is understandable because the competition is so addicting," Day says. "He saw Phil Mickelson playing well at the Open Championship, and that got him going. But he knows he can't push it. I never really had any faith in him coming back this year. The state of his game, I'm not sure. His back is so sore. I think we'll see him sometime next year, but I'm not sure when."
And therein lies the mystery with Woods, who like Batman's less powerful and more reclusive identity, Bruce Wayne, has always presented more questions than answers.
"I haven't seen him in a while, but we've been in constant communication," says Woods confidant Notah Begay III. "We talk every week; about life, to the mistakes I made when I had my own back injuries. Every situation is different, but he's leaving no stone unturned."