Tiger Woods' latest comeback has surprised … Tiger Woods

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Tiger Woods comeback almost feels like an infomercial.

His career and his life had spun out of control. Then he’s playing golf again. Then he’s playing golf well again. Then he’s at the top of the leaderboard again. Then he’s the favorite at the Arnold Palmer Invitational here. Then he’s the captain of the Presidents Cup team and hoping to play there, in 2019. Then he’s looking forward to The Masters in a few weeks.

It’s all so but-wait-there’s-more, and it’s beyond the expectations of pretty much everyone. The golf world, which is relatively bland without him, is reacting like new parents whose baby suddenly sleeps nine hours in a row: just try to enjoy it.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked Woods how he’s able to generate such amazing clubhead speed after going through four back surgeries.

“Dude if I knew, I’d tell you,” he said. “It just happened.

“I went through a number of years where I couldn’t get speed. Now it’s just happening.”

His best guess, at least among his inner circle, is this: “I was living in so much pain I didn’t know it. Just protecting, playing around it, and I didn’t know.

Tiger Woods waits offstage before the start of a news conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill. (AP)
Tiger Woods waits offstage before the start of a news conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill. (AP)

“Now I don’t feel like I’m swinging very hard. But it’s produced incredible speed. Which I’m not against.”

He grinned. The reporters laughed. Like old times.

Wasn’t it just last May when he was seen on a police dashcam video, unable to walk a straight line after being pulled over near his Jupiter (Fla.) home? He looked haggard to say the least in his mugshot. A couple of weeks later, he released a statement: “I’m currently receiving professional help to manage my medications and the ways that I deal with back pain and a sleep disorder. I want to thank everyone for the amazing outpouring of support and understanding, especially the fans and players on tour.”

That back pain dogged him for a long time and led to so many other issues. It was widely believed that it kept him from performing that violent swing, but on Tuesday he claimed that was a misconception.

“I had the least amount of pain hitting a driver,” Woods said. “But when I bent over for a putt or a chip, the pain was off the charts. I can hit driver and put it in play but scoring is around the greens.”

There was no apparent pain on Sunday at the Valspar, when he drained a long putt on 17 to put himself in contention to win. The entire sports world quaked, even on a big day of college basketball, and for many fans it was a gift from the golf gods. Woods has always been must-watch, but back in his heyday you could pick any summer Sunday and see his magic. Now, there are both the wild hopes of a major championship and the worry that it’ll all come apart in the next swing. He’s compelling for what people want and for what people fear. Woods finished second on Sunday, but for the first time maybe ever, a second-place finish for Tiger was more than close enough.

Consider the explanation for the surgery he had less than a year ago, per his website: “Due to previous herniations and three surgeries, Woods’ bottom lower-back disc severely narrowed, causing sciatica and severe back and leg pain. Conservative therapy, which included rehabilitation, medications, limiting activities and injections, failed as a permanent solution, and Woods opted to have surgery. The procedure was a minimally invasive Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (MIS ALIF) at L5/S1. The surgery entailed removing the damaged disc and re-elevating the collapsed disc space to normal levels. This allows the one vertebrae to heal to the other. The goal is to relieve the pressure on the nerve and to give the nerve the best chance of healing.”

Tiger Woods says he’s “very, very eager” to play in next month’s Masters. (AP)
Tiger Woods says he’s “very, very eager” to play in next month’s Masters. (AP)

Doesn’t seem too optimistic, does it? And again, this is his personal website, which is usually as “Nothing to see here!” as it gets. When he spoke with reporters in the Bahamas in his first effort to return to play in November, Woods was brutally honest: “This surgery was about quality of life because I didn’t really have much. I’ve been in bed for about two years and hadn’t been able to do much.” He mentioned that he never went out to dinner because “I can’t sit.”

On Tuesday he sat for almost an hour, answering questions, cracking jokes, talking about how excited he was to return to Augusta National – “very eager,” he said. He went from unable to make it through dinner to able to make it through four rounds against the best golfers in the world.

“For me to go from not knowing whether or not I will ever be able to play the game again to, I might be able to play maybe at the tour level, actually I might be able to possibly get myself into the mix, oh, I’m in the mix.”

So yes, this has surprised him, too.

“At one point, it wasn’t a thought,” he said, “I didn’t even think of playing out here.”

He’s playing and he’s not just playing as a way to get back. He’s playing to win. He has eight victories in 17 starts here, and suddenly, improbably, a ninth is doable. The doctor who performed Woods’ surgery, Richard Guyer of the Center for Disc Replacement at the Texas Back Institute, should probably get his own Augusta membership.

“My back is good enough where my hands can tell me what to do,” he explained. “I’ve built this golf swing with my hands. My dad used to say the only thing that’s in direct contact with the club is your hands. You have to trust your hands.”

He’s trusting his hands, trusting his swing, trusting everything. Fans are simply trusting that the wonderful weekends they thought they lost for good have returned in full.

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