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The responsible fan's guide to Tiger Woods' return

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Mike Ehrmann

December 16, 2021

It will happen this weekend. That is irrefutable. It will take one hole or one swing or maybe his mere appearance on the first tee at the PNC Championship in a dri-fit so tight it had to come from the Koepka Collection, but it will happen. “Tiger is BACK.” Fans will make the decree, and the media is already guilty of it. That proclamation—which is not so much a declaration as it is a shout of joy—will be followed by questions about how his swing looks and how his stride looks and, boy, is it impossible to think he may be good to go for Augusta? While that wonder is understandable, it is unnecessary. And so, so missing the point.

Tiger Woods is back this weekend, in the literal sense that he will publicly tee it up for the first time since his February car accident. But “BACK,” as is often the description when it comes to Woods, refers not to the person but the player and all the prodigious things that player has done and, more specifically, what many hope he can still do. After a turbulent year where he lived in the shadows in the months after the horrific crash, questions about where he is and what lies ahead are expected when returning to the spotlight.

The answers will come. Just don’t seek them this weekend.

For one thing, there’s the not-insignificant reality of the event he’s playing. Calling the PNC a hit-n-giggle may be generous. It is a field that features octogenarians and broadcasters and pre-teens and fashionistas and a man who looks like Santa if Santa ripped heaters. (Which still might be a better field than the Bermuda Championship.) The venue, the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, wasn’t built for tour players but retirees and beleaguered parents needing respite when the magic of nearby magic kingdoms becomes too much. The format is a scramble, and there will be limited spectators in attendance. It’s the equivalent to watching NBA players shoot on a NERF hoop attached to a bedroom door; to extrapolate anything of merit from this competition is a fool’s errand.

Yet the deeper, bigger matter is a plea, to guard against the sentiments that power Woods’ magnetism and that have made a made-for-TV exhibition in mid-December one of the spectacles of the year.

It is easy, warranted perhaps, to feel uplifted about Woods' return. What the man went through, and is still going through, to get to this point … to not feel slightly moved is some Grinch-level cynicism. Conversely, when it comes to discussing and dissecting Woods, emotional intelligence has never been our collective forte. At times that is a good thing and explains why his fans have stood by his side through it all, always asserting even in the darkest of days there remained light.

That same support, however, can be displayed in less than desirable ways. To many, Tiger is a commodity and the demand can never be satisfied. There is always a want for more and a want for what’s next. Sometimes that want can hinder an appreciation for the present.

On a basic level, fans understand this weekend doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of Tiger’s career. (Although if he and Charlie win, there will be a contingent arguing it should push him out of his tie with Sam Snead for the PGA Tour’s all-time victory record, no doubt.) In that vein the PNC can be viewed as a springboard to the events that do matter, and if Woods looks good, swings good, plays well, fans can continue dreaming about tomorrow. That in turn will prompt side-by-side swing breakdowns and schedule speculation and “He can win again, yes?” debates. And that is expected. He is the sun around which the rest of the golf galaxy revolves, and he’s appearing on a televised event on his own recognizance. The attention is one of the many prices of stardom.

What that misses, though, is the fact that this weekend is a moment that, not too long ago, seemed in jeopardy of never happening again. Ever. Ever. It is a notion that never fully settled in, mainly because the game didn’t want to acknowledge the possibility. That seems dramatic, and it’s been said about Tiger before. It is also true. Instead of breathlessly breaking down his return, while don’t we all just catch our breaths?

So sit back and enjoy the simple fact that Tiger Woods is playing golf on television. His short game may look strong. Maybe he takes a couple rips with the driver. Perhaps a fist pump will be unleashed. Whatever he does, it should be digested as entertainment, and that’s as far as the analysis should go. Woods telegraphed this very belief when announcing his return: “Although it’s been a long and challenging year, I am very excited to close it out by competing in the PNC Championship with my son Charlie,” Woods said. “I’m playing as a Dad and couldn’t be more excited and proud.”

I’m playing as a Dad. Tiger Woods, the player, and what that player still has left in the tank … give that guy the weekend off. In his place will be Tiger Woods, the person. Be thankful he’s back.