It was just a nine-second video posted under two simple words – “Making progress” – but the subliminal message was way bigger than that.
The driver. The restrained full swing. The red shirt … on a Sunday.
With the last in a progression of video tweets from Aug. 31 to Oct. 15, Tiger Woods subtly launched his comeback intentions and started the countdown clock to speculation about his return to the 2018 Masters Tournament.
While the official word out of Camp Tiger is “no timetable” for his return and that he’ll continue to “take it slowly,” you can bet that April 5-8 is circled on Tiger’s calendar.
By the time the Masters rolls around, it will be approaching the one-year anniversary of Woods’ latest and most substantial back surgery – fusing together his L5 and S1 spinal vertebrae that took care of the pain he’d been living with in his lower back. Six months after his April 19 surgery, Woods’ doctors gave him full clearance to resume practicing golf without any restrictions.
“He got a nice report and is allowed to proceed,” agent Mark Steinberg told ESPN.com on Monday after Woods released his red-shirted driver tweet. “He can do as much as he needs to do. Tiger is going to take this very, very slowly. This is good, but he plans to do it the right way.”
Woods has nearly six months to work on his game and get in shape before he has to decide whether or not to tee it up in the Masters – an event the four-time champion has been forced to sit out three of the last four years.
Just guessing here, but I wouldn’t expect to see Woods play much, if any, tournament golf before the Masters. Perhaps a pro-am round in the Bahamas in December or Riviera in February – events that help his foundation.
Woods planned a more aggressive gameplan at this point last year when he attempted to throttle his game up to get ready for the Masters. He ended up withdrawing his commitment to play in fall event, got hopes up by leading the field in birdies at his December event in the Bahamas then short-circuited after a missed cut at Torrey Pines and one birdie-free round in Dubai before withdrawing and eventually shutting it down.
As recently as Sept. 27 when he served as assistant captain at the Presidents Cup, Woods admitted he couldn’t guarantee ever playing competitive golf again.
“I don’t know what my future holds for me,” he said. “As I’ve told you guys, I’m hitting 60-yard shots.”
But the very fact that Woods revealed he was hitting those 60-yard shots in a tweet video Aug. 31 saying “Dr. gave me the ok to start pitching,” illustrated his hunger to get back into the swing of things.
With a flurry of Twitter activity from a slow-motion “smooth iron shots” on Oct. 7 to a clinic session on Oct. 10 to his decked-in-red driver video last Sunday, Woods wanted the world to know he’s coming.
While Woods gradually ratchets up his game in seclusion, it’s time for the golf world to gear down our expectations of him in public. He’ll be 42 when 2018 starts, and years of physical decay and a corresponding erosion of confidence means he’ll never be the dominant golfer he once was.
Woods understands that.
“Well, is anybody in here who is in their 40s ever going to feel like they did in their 20s?” Woods asked last month. “Huh? Seriously? Exactly. As I said, I’ll try to get better physically. How about that?”
If Woods is better physically and a stint in rehab has gotten a handle on the prescription medicines that earned him a DUI arrest (charges later dropped) last Memorial Day, there’s no reason he can’t be like the rest of the regular pros on tour. If he and his fans can accept that he’ll miss plenty of cuts and endure mostly uneventful weeks, the occasional moments where his name pops up on a leaderboard will be worth it.
Phil Mickelson hasn’t won anything since his 2013 Open Championship triumph two weeks before Woods’ last victory at the WGC-Bridgestone. Nobody ever flinches when a 47-year-old Mickelson misses a cut or shoots 79 like he did in the PGA Championship this summer. But on the weeks when Phil climbs into contention or still threatens to win a major, the energy of an event hits a different level.
Tiger energy is on a plane of its own – even if he’s ranked 1,164th in the world. We’ve seen it so rarely over the last four years, we’ve almost forgotten what it was like.
Even if it’s never like it was before, it will be welcome just to see Woods walking the fairways and hitting shots like it was watching Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus well beyond their competitive primes. His haters will always hate, but for most of us his mere presence will be enough.
Just three brief videos of Woods swinging a wedge, an iron and a driver generated 2.4 million likes, retweets and replies plus countless more from ensuing sources as it reverberated around social media.
Just seeing those swings allows us to imagine what it will be like if he actually dons a red shirt again on a Sunday at Augusta National.