Tiger’s return was worth the wait

Published 8:44 am Monday, April 22, 2019

Tiger Woods has been a part of golf since 1997. That’s 22 years back when he was just 21 years old.

A lot of us came of age, and I don’t just mean ‘golf age,’ watching Tiger perform on weekends. He even invented his own lexicon for Saturdays’ third rounds: moving day. The day when he anticipated – no, expected – a move up the leaderboard towards another title. And those weekends were magical because of the way he won.

My favorite is still watching him sprint behind a birdie putt in the PGA Championship at Valhalla, pointing his finger toward the hole just before the ball dropped in. Yes, Tiger had mojo like that.

Sunday at the 2019 Masters was the first time Tiger had to come from behind to win a major championship. Most Sundays, the challengers were chasing him. But Sunday, Tiger was calm and collected, masterfully hiding his emotions as he chewed away on his gum. As the competition withered down the stretch, he never wavered, just like he’d been there before; because, well, he had.

And when he finally raised his arms in triumph, it was a moment I honestly have to confess I never thought I’d ever see again. That’s because once upon a time Tiger chewed up courses and swallowed them whole. Consistently.

But over the past dozen years Tiger’s been known less for his dominance on the golf course as much as for his meltdowns off of it.

Tiger brought one of not just the world’s oldest, but one of its most exclusive and segregated sports into the mainstream. So many of today’s golfers owe the privilege of cashing those near-million-dollar checks to Tiger Woods, whether they learned the game at the country club or by hitting balls off the hardpan of the sandlot. He inspired a whole generation of kids who would have otherwise never thought of picking up a golf club. He saved a tired, boring sport and made it, well, cool. He made both new golf fans, and renewed those who already followed it; turning the like into super fans.

This is what was missing from the ‘grand game’ when he was out, whether from self-inflicted mishaps or the physical injuries. When he returned, Tiger was back, but not all-the-way-back. Watching him limp around the course, struggling just to make the cut, was heartbreaking; and for a while, it seemed like we had lost Tiger for good.

Since the Tour Championship win in Atlanta last fall, the momentum had been building as Tiger inched closer and closer back to the top of the leaderboards. And last weekend, it finally culminated.

For a fan like me, watching Tiger smoothly slip once again into that green jacket at Augusta brought back memories of those Sundays when I’d watched him swagger around the course with a three-stroke lead, knowing he was head and shoulders above the rest of the field. But this is a new day, with new fans who have too much Instagram and not enough attention span. Can a return of Tiger to winning again bring the casual fan back? We’ll have to wait a few more tournaments to see.

Okay, so it probably won’t bring golf back to where it was, at what I’m going to call the sport’s ‘prime,’ back at the turn of the 21st century. But the game’s prime and Tiger’s prime are directly related.

Winning one major championship may inch him closer to his ultimate goal of surpassing the great Jack Nicklaus in dominance of “the tournaments that really matter.” And this may not repair his legacy in the eyes of those who condemn him for his actions off the course.

But that doesn’t matter right now. We may not see Tiger on the course again until he tees it up for another major: the PGA Championship in Bethpage, New York next month. What we do have is this, a man taking his second chance and giving us one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history and the ability to truly say this: Tiger is back.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.