Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Behind Tiger Woods' return, a team effort

NASSAU, the Bahamas — Before this year's Ryder Cup, Zach Johnson was scrolling online and stumbled upon distributors selling T-shirts that he thought would be perfect for the dozen U.S. team members to wear when they gathered at Hazeltine National Golf Club for the biennial event.

He ran the idea by his wife, Kim, who did not share his enthusiasm. She talked him out of it.

But Johnson could not let go of the idea. Upon arriving at Hazeltine in September, Johnson sought second, third — even 11th — opinions. His teammates' responses were overwhelmingly positive.

So Johnson ordered more than a dozen of the shirts and had them shipped express to Minnesota, where the players unveiled them during a team meeting after the first day of competition. There they stood, 12 strong, with "Make Tiger Woods Great Again" written across their chests.

Woods, a 14-time major champion, could not play in the Ryder Cup because of a bad back that had sidelined him for more than a year and threatened his career. But his selfless work as an assistant captain played a significant role in the United States' resounding victory over Europe.

In the weeks, and months, before the Ryder Cup, Woods had gone above and beyond what was required of him to help the team. And now it was the team's turn to do whatever it could to help him get back on the course. The T-shirts were just the start of a campaign that gained momentum last week when Woods teed it up in the Hero World Challenge, the unofficial PGA Tour event that he hosts.

In returning to competition, Woods, who turns 41 this month, is having to make up the blueprint as he goes. No former No. 1 player has been sidelined from competition for more than a year at Woods' age and returned to resume winning.

So where does Woods turn for inspiration? To tennis player Juan Martin del Potro, a one-time U.S. Open champion whose four wrist operations cost him two years of his career and who started 2016 ranked 1,041st in the world and ended it by leading Argentina to its first Davis Cup title?

To his longtime friend and practice partner Derek Jeter, the retired Yankees shortstop who broke his left ankle when he was in his late 30s, returned too soon and reinjured it, costing him parts of two seasons?

Woods seemed as surprised as anyone by his answer.

"It's hard to fathom how many of the players here have really — have rallied and really tried to help me come back and offered any kind of advice, any kind of help, whether it's with equipment, it's playing, it's getting out and going out to dinner, just being part of the tour and part of the fraternity," Woods said.

"I've had a lot more close friends out here than I thought."

It was hard to get close to Woods in his prime, when he was winning tournaments by eight or nine strokes. Ryder Cup teammate Dustin Johnson, whose partner, Paulina Gretzky, is the daughter of hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, was asked who he was more intimidated to meet for the first time, Gretzky or Woods. He pondered the question for several seconds, then said, "Probably Tiger, for sure."

Johnson explained that the first time he met Woods was when they played in the same group in a tournament.

"Yeah, that was definitely more intimidating," he said. "Wayne's way too nice."

Henrik Stenson, the reigning British Open champion from Sweden, played 10 events on the PGA Tour for the first time in 2006, when Woods won eight of his 15 starts. Woods, he said, was "always very much into his own bubble."

"Certainly there would be a big reason for that as well," Stenson said. "If you stop and talk to everyone, if you're signing everything, it's just impossible to do that."

At the Ryder Cup, the U.S. players got a glimpse of the chess game that is Woods' life and how he must always be thinking two or three moves ahead. Knowing that he had planned to return for the PGA Tour's 2016-17 season-opening event in California, which started 11 days after the Ryder Cup ended, the U.S. players tried to coax Woods to hit balls with them.

Brandt Snedeker recalled, "He said, 'Man, do you know what a distraction that would have been if I had been out there hitting range balls with you?'

"We hadn't even thought about that."

Snedeker was vacationing in Fiji when he heard that Woods had withdrawn from the event in California three days before the first round. The timing struck many as curious, but to Snedeker, it made sense. His initial reaction, he said, was, "It's probably because he was with us at the Ryder Cup and lost that week of practice."

Other teammates came to the same conclusion. Rickie Fowler, who lives near Woods in Jupiter and plays out of the same club, texted Woods regularly to ask if he would like to practice or play money games.

"Obviously trying to kick him in the butt to try to keep him motivated to get back out here and play," Fowler said.

After they were done with their work, Fowler joined Woods a couple of times for unhurried dinners at the restaurant Woods owns near the course.

"He loves the game, and he wants to be back playing well," Fowler said. "I know it's probably been very hard for him the last two years because golf is something he loves to do and he hasn't been able to do it."

The support for Woods has not been limited to the U.S. players. Englishman Justin Rose, a member of the losing Ryder Cup team, spent time on the range last week showing Woods how to get the most out of his adjustable TaylorMade driver, which Woods is experimenting with as he searches for replacements for the woods that Nike has phased out.

"I think they're all ready to, I don't want to use the phrase 'pay it back,' but I think they all want him to see him do well and be positive with it," said Woods' caddie, Joe LaCava.

The Ryder Cup team's thread of group text messages has become a daisy chain of support for Woods, with Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson, who also served as an assistant captain, among the most active. Reed likes to needle Woods, a 79-time tour winner, by referring to him as his "pod leader."

After the United States clinched the Ryder Cup, Watson blurted out in the news conference: "I have Tiger's cellphone number now. Yes! I'm going to text you all the time." On Tuesday, Woods was asked if Watson had been true to his word. He mouthed an exaggerated "Yes," but then he broke into a broad smile.

Woods' fellow golfers, including those like Zach Johnson and Snedeker who are old enough to have lost to him when he was in his prime, read the situation right. They recognized that the first step to making Woods great again was acknowledging his ordinariness.

"You have to joke around with Tiger because he's lived under a microscope his whole life," Reed said. "And he's watched everything he's had to say everywhere because anything he says or does will get scrutinized. He doesn't want to be treated like one of the best athletes in the world. He wants to be treated like a normal human being."


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