No journalist has chronicled Tiger Woods’ career -- its mythical beginnings, astounding heights and confounding decline -- more closely than Golf Digest’s Jaime Diaz. Having first profiled Woods when the golfer was just a teenager, Diaz most recently took on the subject of whether the 14-time major champion was “done,” both on a physical and even an existential level. That story for the October issue of Golf Digest was reported and written before the most recent news about Woods looking to return at next month’s Safeway Open, but the issues Diaz explores are no less relevant today. In an email discussion with GolfDigest.com editor Sam Weinman, Diaz interprets the most recent news and what we might expect in the months ahead.
Sam Weinman: Your story in the October issue of Golf Digest takes a hard look at whether Tiger has it in him to return to elite competition. So I guess the place to start is what you think the news about him hoping to come back in October says about his motivation?
Jaime Diaz: There are two ways to look at it. The skeptic’s view is that Tiger is working on his image more than a real comeback. Why? Mainly to keep his name out there in a positive light. So that his sponsors will stay satisfied they are still getting their money’s worth, so that his learning center will maintain a high-enough profile to keep drawing potential donors, so that his legacy will be that of a great player who tried nobly to come back but was undone by unfortunate injuries.
The skeptic would point out that Woods hasn’t been seen practicing, hasn’t been playing any rounds, showed evidence of the chip yips as late as his last competitive round at the Wyndham Championship a year ago, and that his last time he made any swings in public — resulting in three straight watery wedge shots at the Quicken Loans Media Day in June — could only have hurt his confidence. The skeptics are prone to thinking Woods has lost his competitive nerve and suffers from performance anxiety, all the more because every shot — from practice tee to final putt on the 18th green — is scrutinized. For skeptics, the key word in Tiger’s announcement is that he hopes to play. If he chooses not to play any or all of the three he’s considering in the fall, he has an easy out.
The optimist’s view is that Tiger is truly eager to come back. That he’s feeling good physically, profoundly misses the game, wants to prove to himself, his kids and the young touring pros who have never seen his best that he can still play and hopefully win at the highest level. Most important, that he has had enough time away from competition to not only be physically healed but mentally refreshed enough to be playing for the right reasons — love of the game and self-actualization — even more than winning.
I’m somewhere in the middle, leaning more toward the optimist’s view. What persuades me most is that Woods could never have been as great as he was without an intrinsic joy for playing the game. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he’s retained — or regained — an important remnant of that quality that all geniuses possess.
I like your version better, so let’s assume that he’s indeed back for noble reasons and not to just save face. Is there anything to suggest he can get back to being a relevant golfer?
Well, nothing in the recent past provides strong evidence that he isn’t in serious decline. But what distinguishes professional golf careers from those in other major sports is their length and, very often, a timeline that includes some dramatic peaks and valleys. And some of the peaks can occur in late career, in some cases after the golfer turns 40, and in many cases after some very deep valleys. (Exhibit A: Jack Nicklaus in 1979 and 1980). I still believe Tiger has the possibility of getting healthy physically and mentally and re-accessing the qualities that made him great. It might be physically impossible for him to ever again be one of the two or three longest hitters, or to hit the kind of towering long irons that can dominate par 5s. But given that being even medium long at the top levels of professional golf is “long enough,” it’s still more a game of skill than power. And if a rejuvenated Tiger over the next few years were to be free of injury and could regain the mental strength that was really his greatest attribute, those skills that he had through the bag would also return and make him among the top players again. Everything would have to go right, starting with his totally and happily wanting to make the commitment and sacrifices necessary. But it’s a long story in golf, and I believe Tiger still has the opportunity to write a satisfying closing chapter.
In your story you delve into some deep stuff, particularly the concept that some of his physical pain might emanate from emotional anguish. If that's the case, can the opposite be true? If Tiger, having missed the game in the past year, can rediscover some joy in playing, could his body respond favorably as well? I ask this question of course acknowledging you are not a doctor, a psychiatrist or, as far as I know, a spiritual healer.
It’s a tricky area, because when it comes to the source of Tiger’s pain, since he has never shared any medical specifics, is all speculation. It was revealing to me that Tiger’s agent, Mark Steinberg, said in our story that Tiger had not considered nor was considering exploring whether his pain could have psychosomatic origins. It suggests that just as Tiger has declined to comment publicly about his scandal or the toll it might have taken on him, he has not addressed the embarrassment and humiliation as a source of stress that could be responsible for part of, or even all of, his lower-back problems. The theoretical inverse of this — again, speculation — would be Tiger coming to terms with the damage his scandal and subsequent divorce did to his psyche, and acknowledging that its effect was psychosomatic pain. Extending this line of thinking, if Tiger got to that point, his body and mind could heal to the point that he could regain the mental and physical skills that in recent years have dramatically declined. The best chance for Tiger to play with joy again is to understand and resolve the sadness and regret he’s likely been carrying in recent years.
The problem, as you know, is Tiger has been stuck in this sort of purgatory for the past few years: He hasn't been healthy enough to play and practice, which has led to inconsistent or just plain bad golf, which has led to all sorts of confidence issues. If we remove pain from the equation — big if, I know — what did you see from his golf swing under Chris Como, and was there any progress?
It was hard to tell how far along Tiger got in implementing the “new old swing” he said he was trying to get to with Chris Como. I think the general principles they said they were pursuing were worthwhile. Tiger had begun looking cramped in the more compact action he had under Sean Foley, and the motion he seems to be pursuing with Como appears more upright and freer. He still lowers pretty significantly at the beginning of the forward swing, but perhaps not as much. There’s also still a bit of stiffness through the finish that could be due to his injuries or something he hasn’t yet worked out technique-wise. My overall feeling is that if pain can be removed from the equation, and Tiger’s commitment is real and his mind is clear, then he'll figure out a way to hit the ball well again. If he can get himself right and stop being so technique-obsessed, the shot will make the golf swing, rather than the golf swing making the shot. He has to trust his gift, which I don’t think has disappeared.
I would imagine that sort of trust takes some time, and as we said earlier, there is little to suggest Tiger is ready to jump back in as an elite player. So that leads to the question of how satisfied do you think he could be as a middling-to-upper-echelon tour player? Think top 50 in the world, with the chance to win every now and then. Would there be any redemption in his mind just proving he can contend at all again?
If Tiger is serious about his comeback, he'll be patient with himself and for a while accept results in the “middling” range. But I disagree with the idea that Tiger is now dramatically limited in terms of his ceiling. His physical tools will not ever be exactly what they were, but if his mind gets right he’ll still have enough skill and firepower to win again. There are plenty of examples of great players who adapted their games with age and remained champions — perhaps not winning as frequently, but still capable, even (or even particularly) in major championships. Nicklaus and Snead are classic examples, but recently Vijay and Mickelson have also fit the model. All this is assuming a best-case scenario, but I do feel that Tiger still has a chance to evolve to a place where he can win majors again. I think that’s what he will expect of himself, and he'll go after it hard if he believes he can do it. If he stops believing he can get back to an elite level, or simply stops wanting to go hard, I don’t think he would he be satisfied with the scenario you propose — top 50 with contention every now and then. That’s when he would walk away.