Wednesday, February 14, 2024

NASSAU, Bahamas — The last decade of Tiger Woods’ career has been a series of stops and starts, the golf world grasping for each and every comeback before he goes away once more. The promise of another new beginning has brought this group here, waiting patiently for a Mercedes-Benz much like the ones that have ferried the other key partners to this part of Albany Golf Course.But then Tiger Woods just appeared, seemingly from thin air. He walked around the corner of the white tent — alone — like he was simply on his morning stroll and said, “Hey, guys,” to the waiting media. The No. 1 player in the world is in the field at this relatively obscure golf tournament in the Caribbean, as is the 2023 PGA Tour champion, two 2023 major winners and most of the rest of the biggest names in golf. But as it always does, all attention focused instead on the man currently ranked No. 1,328 in the world.At first, as Tiger Woods sat down for his annual press conference to preview the Hero World Challenge — a no-cut, limited-field event he hosts for himself and his PGA Tour buddies — and discuss the state of Tiger Woods, he looked just like the 15-time major champion that he is. But as the conversation unfolded, the reality of the new person in front of us became clear. Here was Tiger Woods, PGA Tour policy board member. Tiger Woods, the co-founder of a new golf league. Tiger Woods the investor, the restaurateur, the course designer. Tiger Woods, the 47-year-old legend transitioning toward and becoming the authoritative, senior presence of a sport in crisis.“Don’t say senior,” Woods quipped. “I’m not there yet. I’ve got a couple more years.”Woods is also a golfer, again. And he plans to keep playing for a while, saying his right ankle is strong enough to allow him to walk 18 holes without pain following his post-Masters subtalar fusion surgery. He even hinted at playing a once-a-month schedule in 2024, which would include all four majors. But very little about Woods’ focus Tuesday was on his playing ability and future career, joking, “I’m just as curious as all of you with what’s going to happen. I haven’t done this in a while.”His latest comeback was the secondary storyline, the focus instead on the future of the PGA Tour and men’s professional golf. He was a politician/executive, talking confidently about each and every issue for the PGA Tour. He answered questions about the status of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia negotiations with the same conviction as if PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan was saying it. Maybe more authority, wielding his power around three different times to say Monahan making deals with the PIF without the players input “can’t happen again.”He drove home the need for the players to control their own future, the same need that led to players pressuring Monahan to add an extra board seat for players and for that seat to go to Woods. He spoke of multiple “other options” for the PGA Tour to find new funding if the PIF deal doesn’t happen. He answered questions about the new TGL league he helped start as a counter to the team model of LIV, the rival league funded by PIF.Woods, one of the most idiosyncratic and ruthless competitors in the history of sports, is now operating as the leading force for change in golf.Think about the way Woods talks about his body, in which he says his foot and ankle pain are gone but it also means he has to put pressure on other parts of his body. Now it goes to his knees or his back.“The forces have to go somewhere,” he said.For decades, Tiger Woods put his entire focus into becoming the most dominant golfer of all time. That golfer is fading. The forces had to go somewhere.In April, two months before the surprise PIF announcement, a hobbled Woods played a Masters practice round with Tom Kim and Rory McIlroy. The 21-year-old Kim is a sponge for this kind of stuff, peppering Woods and McIlroy with constant questions ahead of his first Augusta National appearance. How would you approach this hole? What does the wind do here?And Woods answered. He shared trade secrets and let one of golf’s brightest young stars in, just like his idols had once done for him.“Hey, I was lucky enough to have played with Freddie (Couples) and Raymond (Floyd) my first year,” he said that April day with a smile. “And Seve (Ballesteros) and Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal). That was incredible. And then Jack and Arnold, the Par 3 Contest with those guys. That’s what this tournament allows us to do, is pass on knowledge and gain knowledge from the past and apply it.” Tiger Woods made his latest return to the course this week at the Hero World Challenge. (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)Woods allowed himself to be nostalgic ahead of a major championship, a stark departure from his heyday. He shared stories of Floyd giving his advice on an approach shot by a gallery on No. 2 (“Well, you hit it right over at them, and then right before it lands, you yell ‘fore’”). He joked about a terrible tee shot in 2005 that set up his iconic chip on the 16th hole. He talked about his son, Charlie, and how he might not view golf with the same competitive vigor he once did, but it’s still everything to him. “So the joy,” Woods said, “it’s different.”That element cannot be left out with Woods at this moment in time. Maybe once he was so obsessed with greatness that he didn’t have the bandwidth or the interest for such things, but now he can see he is the figure the entire golf world looks to, and he has the capacity to use it.“It was an honor for him to kind of get the torch passed to him from Arnold and Jack,” said Justin Thomas, perhaps the current player closest to Woods. “So I think he’s looking at it as he wants to kind of pass that to whatever the following generation is.”This is a phase seen often in the golf world…

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