He may have had as many surgeries as a Beverly Hills socialite in recent years, but it would seem the one part of Tiger Woods that did not need fixing was his star power.
While there are many elements to the latest Woods comeback that are surprising, the resilience of his ability to draw a crowd has to be near the top of the list. It has been almost five years since he won a PGA Tour tournament, and a full decade since he won a major championship. Even that understates the degree of his fall: he had only played in a handful of events over the past two years, and he had finished inside the top 10 of a PGA Tour event precisely once over the four seasons prior to this one.
Sure, he once attracted non-golf fans to the sport in record numbers, but that interest would have had to wane considerably during his years in the wilderness, no?
Woods’ run at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on the weekend caused that tournament to more than double its television ratings over last year. His fifth-place finish at Bay Hill followed a second-place finish a week earlier at the Valspar Championship in Tampa, where the television ratings were even more ridiculous: it drew more viewers in the United States than any golf telecast over the past five years other than the Masters, and not because fans were riveted by the winning performance from Paul Casey, who must have felt like the bride at a wedding when all anyone wants to talk about is the excessively sozzled maid of honour. It was the biggest non-major ratings draw since Woods won the Players Championship in 2013, when his biggest problems were still just his knee and marital fidelity.
Even after all this time during which Woods has been sidelined, he remains the only golfer who can cause casual sports viewers to turn the channel to a PGA event. More than twice as many people were interested in watching Woods play in a regular PGA event the past two Sundays than tuned in to the final round of the 2015 Open Championship, when Jordan Spieth had already won the first two majors of the season and ended up finishing just one shot out of a playoff.
If nothing else, it’s evidence that golf will never again approach the interest levels of the peak Woods years once he retires. Even though Tour fields are flush with young talent, and stars like Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson have taken turns providing stretches of dominant play, it took a creaky, balding Woods to remind everyone of what it was like to have everyone talking about golf again.
And it’s why golf, beset by falling participation rates, course closures, and major retailers and manufactures exiting the business, desperately needs this Woods comeback to last for a while. It is not a coincidence that Nike, which stuck by Woods when the rest of his sponsors were barge-poling away from him, gave up on manufacturing balls and clubs when it looked like his playing career might be over.
The good news for golf is that the odds of this comeback lasting are looking better every week.
Woods’ top-five finishes in Tampa and Orlando are the first time he finished that high in back-to-back weeks since 2013, when he won three times around a fourth-place finish at the Masters. Along with his 12th-place finish at the Honda Classic before the Valspar, that is the only the second three-tournament stretch in the past five seasons in which Woods has even managed to make the cut. The last time he did it, in 2015, he was 17th at the Masters, 69th at the Players, and 71st at the Memorial — a period of almost two months in which those were the only tournaments he entered while he nursed various ailments.
Put another way, this is the first time since 2013, more than five full seasons ago, in which Woods has entered this many PGA tournaments without disappearing for weeks at a time in between them. The big question about this latest comeback attempt was if he could even manage to do that. Now that he has proven that he can, perhaps it should not be surprising that a healthy Woods remains capable of displays of competence.
The next question is whether it lasts. For that, let us turn to a point in his Friday round at Bay Hill, when Woods hit his drive into heavy rough on the par-5 16th hole. With trees blocking his approach to the green, he needed a high approach, which he pulled off by angrily lashing an eight iron into the long grass in a manner not unlike, one imagines, the way his former wife once took a similar club to his Buick. The resulting shot, an eight iron that went 192 yards, with Woods corkscrewing himself in a way that must have given his surgeons fits, was not the play of someone working himself tentatively back into game shape.
Woods says he feels different this time. With him playing, his sport does, too.
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