We have a Tiger Woods sighting. From a remote location somewhere in Dublin, Ohio, golf’s elusive lord appeared for a few moments before a green Memorial Tournament backdrop and provided proof of life.
For the first time in five months, Woods will return to a competitive golf setting that doesn’t include anyone who has thrown for at least 70,000 yards in the NFL.
Paired with Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka on Thursday in the first round of the Memorial, he will be greeted by a gallery of none, playing in a kind of shattering quiet. Meanwhile, the golf world watches raptly from afar, the coronavirus having turned us all into disconnected voyeurs.
“It’s just a very different world out here,” Woods said in his remote-access pre-tournament presser, coming rather late to the observation.
It was just good to hear his voice again, a reassuring sign that he had not entered witness protection.
Woods carefully waited out the first five weeks of the PGA Tour’s restart, taking the temperature of the times not with one of those instant-read thermometers but rather a hypercautious instinct.
As he put it: “I did consider playing (earlier), trying to figure out if I should play or not. But I just felt it was better to stay at home and be safe. … Let’s see how it plays out first and let’s see how the Tour has played out, how they’ve started. I feel that I’m comfortable enough to come back out here and play again, and I’m excited to do it.”
In the time off, he played some tennis. Read some Dean Koontz. Survived all the perils of living in Florida (State Motto: Let’s Get Drunk and Rub Up on Each Other on the Beach!). Got his body as right as it can be.
We know that he is feeling much better than when last he was on Tour. He shot 76-77 on a February weekend at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles and finished last among those who made the cut. His improved condition was obvious when he teamed with Peyton Manning to beat Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady in a charity match in late May.
He said as much Tuesday: “Physically, I was very stiff at LA. I was not moving that well. The back was just not quite loose. It was cold. I wasn’t hitting the ball very far, wasn’t playing very well.
“I feel so much better than I did then. I’ve been able to train and concentrate on getting back up to speed and back up to tournament speed.”
Your defending Masters champion has held the title well beyond its expiration date — 15 months and counting now — because of the postponement of the tournament to November. No sign yet that it has started to spoil.
He eased back into this tournament week by playing a practice round with buddy Justin Thomas on Tuesday morning. The same Thomas who took a playful jab at Woods last week, saying, “I was telling him he’s scared to come out and play against all of us.”
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“I got a bunch of texts and a bunch of calls when he said that, and hence I’m out here,” smiled the winner of 15 majors and 82 Tour events. “So, I’m not afraid of J.T. anymore. I’ve gotten over that, and here we go.”
In the golf world that he’s coming back to, they’re going low. And Bryson DeChambeau, for one, is going ridiculously long. Dustin Johnson shot a career-low 61 along the way to winning the Travelers Championship. Webb Simpson broke the RBC Heritage’s 72-hole scoring record in finishing 22 under. Collin Morikawa just shot 19 under on the same course where they’ll play the Memorial — and he still had to win in a playoff.
From his chair, Woods has noted the easier course set-ups that have welcomed back the pros. “But,” he added, “the guys have just absolutely played unbelievably well.”
“The low scores have been low and cumulative,” he said. “To see the cuts at 3, 4 under par each and every week on the venues that I know are traditionally very hard, to see the scores last week, I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
The looming question to be answered is: Can he hang?
Can Woods after another long layoff get up quickly to the kind of par-busting speed that has been set the last month-plus? Rule nothing out with him, of course. When he won something called the Zozo Championship in Japan last year it came after a couple months away.
Added to the intrigue this week is how the most followed, most photographed player this side of the late Arnold Palmer will react in the vacuum of the coronavirus protocols. He has drawn such energy from his followers. This week only the singing birds and the masked camera operator will be his gallery.
“I think for me in particular, I’m going to have to just put my head down and play,” he said.
“It’s going to be different, there’s no doubt about it. For most of my career, pretty much almost every competitive playing round that I’ve been involved in, I’ve had people around me, spectators yelling, a lot of movement inside the gallery with camera crews and media.
“That it’s a very different world out here, not to have the distractions, the noise, the excitement, the energy that the fans bring. It’s just a silent and different world.”
Yet, somehow, whenever he chooses to play, doesn’t the game still manage to get just a little louder?