A Friday evening check by the United States golf media has long since become both routine and mundane. As entries close for the following week’s PGA Tour event, a scan of the talent list is necessary to find out if a certain T Woods will single-handedly raise the status of any given tournament. Through the stages of Woods’s incredible career – greatness, epic decline, greatness again – his ability to draw eyes has never wilted. Arguably, the Woods aura is now stronger than ever.
Quite why Woods enjoys his scheduling plans being so shrouded in mystery has always been unclear. Every other golfer in the world, either privately or otherwise, will offer steers. Woods seems to revel in the secrecy of what essentially is triviality.
In his acclaimed book The Big Miss, chronicling a spell coaching the 15-times major champion, Hank Haney tells of giving a nudge to an ESPN member of staffabout the fact Woods wasn’t playing in a certain tournament. The information was given for planning purposes alone.
“ESPN didn’t report Tiger’s decision not to play until the deadline passed,” Haney explains. “The next time I saw Tiger, though, a couple of weeks later I realised that it had somehow leaked that I’d tipped off the producer. He told me in a flat voice: ‘Don’t tell people where I’m going to play.’
“I was never again told whether he was entering a tournament until the same day he publicly announced his decision on his website. I guess he felt I’d betrayed him.” Haney, remember, was about as inner sanctum as one could get.
That Woods has opted to dodge the first three stages – at least – of the PGA Tour’s resumption is fascinating. Whenever the 44-year-old returns, the intrigues will be plentiful. In no particular order: what is the state of his game, what are his thoughts on Covid-19 developments, what has Woods made of the George Floyd tragedy and associated uproar?
Woods’s voice on the final point alone will resonate far beyond the boundaries of the United States. People can love or hate Tiger Woods – there is very little middle ground – but he is enthralling. Extended absences such as this merely add to existing anticipation of his every step.
PGA Tour fields have been stacked, a who’s who, but the most prominent of all has remained at home in Florida or, as weekend photos highlighted, partaken in fishing trips with his son. Woods formed part of a rain-lashed charity match in May that raised $20m for coronavirus relief efforts, after which he suggested the proper stuff couldn’t come soon enough. Since then? Silence.
It could be that Woods, linked to his ethnicity, feels especially susceptible to coronavirus if involved in tournament golf. The PGA Tour’s widely heralded processes have unravelled to an extent after the positive tests of Nick Watney, Cameron Champ and Ken Comboy, Graeme McDowell’s caddie. Whether or not this interstate travelling circus can keep Covid-19 under control is now a matter for serious debate.
Woods is protective enough of his own and his family’s health not to invite even a tiny element of risk. That others, including players who skipped the Rio Olympics citing the Zika virus, will bounce from tour stop to tour stop should raise eyebrows. While the cat has stayed away, the mice have played. To what cost remains to be seen.
A glance at Woods’s seasonal habits illustrates he wouldn’t normally be especially busy during this window. Still, these are no ordinary times. The PGA Tour shut down for three months. Woods played two events in early 2020 before skipping the abbreviated Florida swing because of back trouble. One of the fiercest competitors in the history of sport has completed just eight tournament rounds this year, the last of them – of 77 shots – in mid-February.
For all that Woods has his habits when it comes to venues it seems reasonable to infer he would relish the chance to play when spared the almighty racket that forms a backdrop to his every step. And yet a sportsman who has seemed in constant search of serenity has given closed-door events a swerve.
If Woods sticks to a tried-and-tested formula, he will feature at the Memorial tournament in mid-July. As things stand, that is scheduled to be the first event of the PGA Tour’s new normal to allow spectators on the premises. It is fair to emphasise state-to-state differences – in this case, Ohio versus California – but that the US PGA Championship will take place three weeks later without fans will naturally raise nervousness around Memorial. If Woods is added to the mix, focus will intensify tenfold. He is one win away from breaking the PGA Tour’s victory record.
In an untouched schedule, Woods should be certain to perform in three majors and the FedEx Cup play-offs. He has warned, continually, of over-play – Woods cited 17 events in 2018 as “too much” – but there is a fine balance between this and inviting ring rust.
The Ryder Cup will shortly be removed from Woods’s 2020 equation, albeit the hectic nature of 2021 will raise their own issues. This approach of skipping every one of the PGA Tour’s early events is unique to Woods as a top 20-ranked player, save those who have opted to stay at home outside of the US and avoid quarantine. That Woods’s extended break will trigger a slide down the world rankings doesn’t seem to concern the man himself at all.
Unprecedented circumstances mean Woods will spend at least 19 months as the reigning Masters champion. His return to Augusta National was and remains one of sport’s most anticipated stories of 2020. If the hysteria around that can and should not be diminished, Woods has clearly decided less is more in the meantime. Golf’s profile is worse off for that. But is Woods? Time will tell.
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