Tiger Woods never left us. But over the next four days, the great "Is Tiger back?" debate will hit crescendo at Augusta National Golf Club. It's the most popular narrative in sports right now, replacing "LeBron as closer," which was revving up this time last year for its ultimate judgment. Much as LeBron had to win an NBA championship last spring to dispel that narrative, Tiger will have to win his fifth Masters on Sunday afternoon in order to validate the status of "back."
Perhaps no other sport is susceptible to narrative more than golf. It's a non-team sport, where the individual competes against himself -- whether it's a demon like the yips off the tee, a shakiness with the putter, or a personal history at a particular event. The time in between each shot must be filled with story from Jim Nantz, or more preferably the chortle of Uncle Verne. There are only four opportunities a year for a career-defining achievement, and each missed chance -- or worse, collapse -- provides more copy to whatever narrative has attached itself to a player.
For Tiger Woods, the most popular golfer in history, a manichean pre/post fire hydrant narrative set in as he hit his late 30s. The personal scandal that erupted in 2009 made him the most popular celebrity in the world for a stretch, but going forward, that off-the-course drama also obscured the other troubles that would have likely put his dominance on hold anyways. Specifically, Woods was a middle-aged golf pro with a significant injury history and injury risk, who wanted to change his swing and was still chasing total control over a swing -- a reliably perfect motion through the ball (Ben Hogan is the one player largely credited with achieving this).
The personal scandal washed away the veneer of Woods as a perfect pitchman, a superstar athlete with a model wife and family who avoided significant controversy while spending most of his life in narrow crosshairs. After a hibernation period, and a short time wandering in search of his game, Tiger made the move to change his swing under the guidance of Sean Foley, a quirky Canadian who's in to biomechanics and apparently calls people "bro," not ironically.
Many thoughtful experts continue to dissect Tiger's many swings, but throughout his career, the people qualified to give accurate assessments of his "process" can be counted on one hand. Tiger's maniacal competitiveness is more often hailed, but he also has the most technical knowledge -- the mundane stuff that doesn't go well with narrative -- of any pro golfer in his generation. Just as it's impossible to know if Woods will chase down the majors record of Jack Nicklaus, it's impossible for an outside analyst to break down his swing with any kind of substantive authority. You're always starting a couple steps behind of where he's at and plans to go.
He chooses a swing instructor not as a teacher, but as the handmaiden of an approach that will keep his interest and provide another obstacle, and opportunity, to achieving total ownership of every swing. Whether the instructor is Foley, Butch Harmon, or Hank Haney, it's Woods who is always in control and sometimes too knowledgeable or analytical for his own good.
Tiger's repeated decision to change his swing is really the only thing that has created skepticism about his judgment when it comes to golf . In a thorough piece on Tiger's history of swing changes, Scott Eden wrote for ESPN The Magazine this year that "the greatest act of Woods' career, the constant and complete reinvention of his game, has been almost universally reviled." The fact that Tiger, already facing enormous pressure and cynicism from his personal moral failings, decided to take on another overhaul, speaks to a nonpareil psychological state that puts him ahead of the rest. Reeling from worldwide ridicule and the shattering of an image, the more sensible thing to do would have been to go back to work on a comfortable approach that had maintained his nearly 30 percent win rate at the majors. Instead, Woods decided to make things more challenging and start over with Foley, working it all out on Tour, struggling in public view as opposed to re-surfacing with a new game that's polished.
The off-the-course scandal may have prolonged the working period this time, but the drought was coming whether his family life crumbled or not. The narrative, however, changed during this swing overhaul, shifting to whether Tiger was "back" from the depths of his personal nadir. Those non-golf matters may have affected the initial re-start, but much like the prior swing changes, he never left. Without getting too in-depth on the technical aspects of the change, the Foley redesign, which emphasizes swing statistics and a stack & tilt approach, is a significant departure from anything Tiger's ever done. Like his previous swing changes, he needed time to implement everything, only this time he was on the other side of 35 and also working through persistent knee injuries and an achilles problem. The amalgamation of these factors created the perception that he was gone, and perhaps never coming back.
Frank Nobilo of the Golf Channel summed up the constant assessment of Tiger's swing and "mental state" last month just before Woods reclaimed the No. 1 ranking at Bay Hill. "I think that's why he's been such a hard athlete to critique," he said. "Because in the end we keep going back to the best periods in his career because the comparisons with the other great players in the game just either seem unfair or don't really do him justice. So we go back to 2000 and 2001 -- well, no athlete is ever going to be as good as what they were at 23, his physical best."
Tiger went through droughts before when he changed swings, but the public embarrassments of 2009 provided a quick and easy demarcation, so this time it was whether he was gone and is he now back? But as Nobilo notes, all these attempted designations or comparisons never change the fact that we're talking about the best golfer in the world, who's been that, uninterrupted, since the late '90s. What's he back to? He has four vintages, all of which have kicked everyone's ass.
The injury issues have abated and Tiger appears to now have command of the fourth swing of his career. As Eden noted, no other player has ever conceived of changing his swing three times and "no other player would ever want to conceive of it." Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee, who was rather entertainingly napalming Woods and calling for him to fire Foley this time last year, said this week that the legacy of Tiger's career, no matter how many he wins from here, will be the 14 majors he's already won with so many different swings.
Tiger hasn't officially said he's "there" yet with the Foley redesign, but he's got to be pretty close. He comes to Augusta National as the No. 1 player in the world, achieving that status last month for the first time since October 2010. In three of four stroke-play PGA Tour events this season, he's run away from the field, stirring up the "he's back" debate. The victories have been much more impressive than his three wins last year as Tiger has clearly established a level of comfort with the new swing, opening up time to work more on his short game.
And it's the short game that has Tiger as a ridiculous 3/1 favorite. Athleticism and power off the tee have been the most prevalent features of Tiger's dominance. It's much easier to hone in on that part of his game -- it redefined the sport. Joshua Ferris once described a character in one of his novels as having the "compact, athletic body of a seal." Before Tiger, this would be an appropriate description for almost everyone on Tour. Woods changed all that, and in the process, brought the competition up a level as the next wave ascended to the pros. But while it's easier to focus on his athletic superiority, it has been Tiger's short game -- work with the wedges and putter -- which outclassed his colleagues at major championship venues.
All season, Tiger has been firing darts into the green from 150 yards and in, and then cleaning up on the putting surface to keep his competitors at a distance. The putting from 10 feet and in has been the most impressive part of his success this year. That was certainly an advantage he always held over the rest of the field, and he's been as consistent as ever with those moderate-length putts that either increase the margin, or save par and slam shut the hopes of the chasers. Tiger had just 100 putts in 72 holes during the runaway win at Doral, one of the best stretches on the green in his career.
Steady putting is always the way to hang around, but the emphasis is even greater at Augusta, which is defined by its slippery greens. Tiger will have his mishits off the tee, but the short game work has covered that up this year (he was at the bottom in total driving at Bay Hill, but still cruised). He's insisted at each event this year that he's finally had some time to work on that part of his game as he got healthy and throttled down on the maniacal practice it took to remake the full swing under Foley. "'[The short game] is something that's not necessarily technique, it's more time spent," Woods said earlier this year at the WGC-Match Play. "As we all know, I went through a swing change with Sean and I didn't have a whole lot of time to devote to my short game. I devoted pretty much all of my golf time to making my swing changes. And because of that, my short game fell off. I didn't chip as well. I didn't putt as well. And consequently I didn't score as well."
Woods is a machine at these press conferences, blowing through a half-hour of time uttering thousands of words but never really saying anything. The results and stats, however, do support this refrain. "When my swing started coming around and the changes were implemented and I didn't have to spend so many hours working on it, I could spend that time now chipping and putting. And my scoring average has dropped, saving shots here and there and I've won a few tournaments since."
Yeah, but those tournaments aren't majors, so is he "back back?" as one television anchor recently said. What are we defining as being back for the 14-time major winning 37-year-old golfer with an injury history? Golf is already the provenance of overdramatizing rhetoric, and nowhere is the treacle all the way turned up as much as Augusta National. If you've listened closely, the next four days are the most important major ever for Tiger and the validation narrative is all that matters. Even if he doesn't win here but wins another major, which he will, the next angle will be that he can't close anymore at Augusta, where the floodgates to many more Tiger majors should have opened long ago. The next Masters is always the biggest and most important, but given Tiger's recent form, the anticipation is greater and there seems to be even something more on the line this week, even if there shouldn't be and in reality, there isn't.
The underlying and more important issue behind the "Is he back?" question is his attempt to chase down Jack Nicklaus' majors record. With 14 wins at age 37 (Jack had 14 at the same age), the critiques of his swing change, love life, and health shift back to the pursuit of five more majors wins to set a new record. The chase for the record is a narrative driven much more by the player himself, as Woods has repeatedly talked about the sheet of goals he had above his bed as a child, the first of which was winning 19 majors to pass Jack. That's always been the singular drive behind everything else, including risking valuable career time to remake your swing.
Due to his popularity, there will be constant minor controversies that pop-up around Woods (such as made-up outrage over an innocuous advertisement), but the "Is he back?' drama was an easy narrative that should have never gained such steam. If Tiger doesn't win this week, that will probably continue to dog him as critics still seek validation. Given Tiger's current game, the whole thing should be put to rest with another green jacket. But even if it's not and he has to stay at 14 majors for at least another two months, he'll still drive away from Augusta National as the best player in the world. The way it has always been.