By John Feinstein
In all, it was a good week for Tiger Woods. He played 72 holes in a real golf tournament for the first time since August 2015. He birdied his 18th hole on Friday to make the cut. He scored respectably all four days at Torrey Pines, even though he had a two-way miss going with his driver on Saturday and Sunday. He improved his position on the leader board every day, going from T-83 to T-65 to T-39 to a T-23 finish. He did what he used to do better than anyone in history: He found ways to score. For a 42-year-old who has played very little golf the last four years, it was a solid showing.
It should also calm those in the media who seemed to think that the only thing standing between Woods and his next major victory is the next 10 weeks. Woods has come a long way back. But, what we also saw over the last four days from Southern California is he still has miles to travel before he sleeps in a fifth green jacket. Or any major trophy.
So now what? What’s next for Tiger? There are some who will argue that he needs to play more often than in the past, that taking off from now until next month’s Genesis Open after a two-week break is a mistake. There are others who believe he needs to be very careful with just how hard he pushes his fused back and his oft-surgically repaired body.
One way or the other, the most important thing for Woods going forward may be patience—not a strength of his in the past.
Tiger has certainly talked patience during past comebacks, but he’s never lived it, coming back too soon at times. Getting on an airplane a year ago to fly to Dubai for a big appearance fee, well you don’t need to be a chiropractor to know 11 hours in a plane, no matter how luxurious, with a sore back is not a good thing.
Moreover, Woods has to understand what the screeching media, various “Tiger Trackers,” and his loyal fans may not: Hitting it well on the range, playing reasonably well in an exhibition, even making a cut in a regular PGA Tour event are all a long way from dealing with the crucible of a major championship.
“We know now that Woods can play competitive golf on four consecutive days without a 911 call. We know he still remembers how to score. Still, where comeback XVIII will lead, no one—including Woods—really knows.”
The majors are really the only reason for Woods to play at this stage of his life—that and being bored out of his mind sitting at home. No doubt he’d like to win four more tour events and pass Sam Snead’s 82 victories on the all-time win list, but that’s never been what his career was about.
It was about Jack Nicklaus and the number 18 when he first came on tour. It was about Nicklaus and 18 when he won 14 majors in 11½ years. And it’s about Nicklaus and 18 now. Or, perhaps, when he lies awake at night alone with his thoughts, it’s about 15—winning one more to go out with one last very large bang rather than the sad whimper that it’s been the last four years.
It’s worth remembering that before the injuries and the surgeries began to pile up, Woods’ magic putting touch in the majors had disappeared. Whether it was the shock of being caught on Sunday at the 2009 PGA Championship by Y.E. Yang and losing a final-day lead in a major for the first time ever, or the humiliation that he brought on himself with his personal life, Woods stopped making putts when he had a chance to be a serious contender on the four weekends that matter most in golf.
Remember, he finished T-4 in 2010 in his first two major starts after the “accident,” fading both times on Sunday. He was in contention at the 2011 PGA going into the weekend, was tied for the lead at the 2012 U.S. Open after 36 holes and was one shot out of the lead going into the final round at the Open Championship at Muirfield in 2013. None of them ended with Woods gaining ground on Nicklaus.
Woods shot 74 that day in Scotland in 2013, and said that the greens were extremely hard to read because they were so slow. When asked about Phil Mickelson shooting 66—to win—on the same greens, Woods shrugged and said, “The golf course was gettable today.”
Some would say that refusal to acknowledge Mickelson’s brilliant round was the “old Tiger.” They will now point to his new-found cordiality (albeit still at arm’s length) with the media, his popularity in the locker room and his almost sunny approach to golf and life as being evidence of a “new Tiger.”
Tiger 10.0 perhaps?
No. Woods has evolved—slowly—since the death of his father. One person who noticed it is the person who has known him longest on tour: Mickelson.
“Before his dad passed away  you could tell he was uncomfortable in the [Ryder Cup] team room,” Mickelson said, talking about Woods’ role as a vice captain in 2016. “He’d been told not to get close to anyone, not to give anything away, that all of us were going to be his opponents again the next week.
“That started to change. You could see it in Wales, you could really see it at Medinah. And at Hazeltine, he wasn’t just one of the guys, he was a mentor. He was willing to do anything to help us win.”
Players joked about Woods’ obsession with winning back the Cup, so much so that Brandt Snedeker recounted a story about telling Woods he had to get off the phone as Tiger rattled on about who should play with whom, whether Snedeker should play four-ball or foursomes and where he wanted to play in singles lineup.
“I finally said, Tiger, I gotta go,” Snedeker said. “You need a hobby.”
That’s a long journey from the Woods, who barely spoke to anyone in the locker room, on the range or on the golf course while he was dominating the sport. He’s older now and he’s been humbled—on and off the golf course—something no one would have envisioned when he won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines almost 10 years ago.
There are still far more questions than answers. Even though there will be reams of hype (again) when Woods tees it up in Los Angeles next month, there should be no more talk about rust or, as Woods put it Saturday, “finding some semblance of a golf swing.”
We know now that Woods can play competitive golf on four consecutive days without a 911 call. We know he still remembers how to score. Still, where comeback XVIII will lead, no one—including Woods—really knows.
After Hazeltine, Mickelson talked about enjoying exchanging barbs with Woods during the week.
“I consider myself the king,” Mickelson said. “But Tiger’s got that trump card. One night I said to him in the car, ‘Hey, Tiger, can’t wait to see you out there again trying to keep it on the planet.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Do the numbers 14 and 79 mean anything to you, Phil?”
Fourteen major wins and 79 tournament victories trumps almost everyone who has ever played the game, including Mickelson, who has been stuck on five and 42 since that day at Muirfield in 2013.
Of course, 14 is not 18. Progress is progress—no doubt. But Woods is still a long way from 15. Or, for that matter, 80.