<
>

So, really, why do we care about Tiger?

play
Tiger responds to Thomas smack talk (0:52)

As Tiger Woods is set to make his comeback to professional golf, he responds with a little smack talk of his own to his playing partner Justin Thomas. (0:52)

NASSAU, Bahamas -- He is about to turn 42 and has been playing high-level tournament golf for more than 30 years. He's hit thousands upon thousands of golf balls, and though he competes in a noncontact sport, even Tiger Woods concedes that "there are certain areas of my body that are just worn out."

And so it is for some that there is fatigue when it comes to yet another comeback, the latest return being last week at the Hero World Challenge.

It was there a year ago at Albany Golf Club that a similar return unfolded, only to be derailed just a few months later with Woods withdrawing from a tournament in the Middle East. A fourth back surgery ensued, and here we are again.

Last year's tournament produced television ratings on Golf Channel that were 190 percent higher than the previous year's first round. It was the most-watched opening round of any tournament on the network since The Open. Similar gains were reported on NBC over that weekend, even though Woods drifted out of contention.

And fans were breathless when Woods -- who had spinal fusion surgery in April and could not take full swings for six months -- posted a video in October and November of himself hitting full shots, his return going better than expected.

The reality is, however, stark: More than two years have passed since Woods posted a top-10, more than four years since he celebrated his last victory and going on 10 years since he last held up a major championship trophy.

In the meantime, a talented, eager and younger group of players has emerged. Jordan Spieth has won three majors since the first of Woods' back surgeries and Rory McIlroy two (and four overall). Justin Thomas won six times in 2017 including a major championship. Long-hitting Dustin Johnson won the 2016 U.S. Open and is a solid No. 1 in the world (and the only player who has won more times than Woods since 2009). Brooks Koepka won this year's U.S. Open, and even Woods' old nemesis Sergio Garcia -- who is four years younger -- won the Masters.

Why do we care about Tiger?

"It's just to see him," said Sean Foley, one of Woods' former instructors. "Why do so many people go watch Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit one ball off the tee at Augusta? I do it every year. I've done it like eight times. It's just because it's a part of history and so incredible to see."

Woods is less likely to make history these days, his recent career having been a tattered mess of injuries, withdrawals, chip yips, stage fright and comebacks dating to his first back surgery in 2014.

Since then, Woods has played just 19 worldwide tournaments. He's had a single top-10. The last time he played a competitive round, it was a 77 with no birdies in Dubai, almost 10 months ago to the day.

And yet, when Woods is healthy, it is still a sight to behold, a sound to be heard, when he strikes a golf ball.

Why do we care about Tiger?

"It's the same reason that when Michael Jordan came back to play basketball," said Thomas, who will play with Woods in competition for the first time during the Hero. "When you're one of the greatest of all time to play your sport and just do things that people can't and haven't done before and you just have such a huge fan base.

"It's funny, I'm sitting here talking about it. This event wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. If he hadn't done everything he's done, we wouldn't have the sponsors we have. We wouldn't be playing for the amount of money that we're playing for if it wasn't for him.

"Nobody moves the needle like him, even now."

Woods might have endured years of lackluster golf, but his name still packs a powerful punch. He remains among the top endorsers in the game, representing the likes of Nike, TaylorMade, Bridgestone, Hero, Rolex, Monster Energy and Kowa, and his golf course design business is beginning to get traction, with several courses in the works.

Even without playing, Woods ranked fourth on Golf Digest's annual list of the top-paid players in the game, with more than $36 million in off-the-course earnings, according to the magazine. He trailed only Spieth, the late Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson. He was ranked third a year ago and topped the list for years.

Why do we care about Tiger?

It seems everyone has an opinion about Tiger -- even unsolicited opinions. Just recently, an email popped into my inbox, unprompted from a Pennsylvania consultant whom I'd never met.

"We're heading to Albany to check out the most recent return by Woods," wrote Vince Scarpetta, the CEO of Pure Green Consultants. "My brother and I have seen more than our share of golf, but recently he wouldn't drive around the block to watch most of today's tour players compete.

"Yet watching Tiger is so distinct that it's difficult for him to pass up watching Woods, even in a glorified, 72-hole exhibition."

In ESPN The Magazine's recent Fame Issue, Woods ranked as the 10th-most-popular athlete worldwide, behind only two other Americans -- LeBron James and Mickelson. The Mag came up with a formula that combined endorsements, social media following and internet search popularity.

Over the years, his popularity has remained strong despite the decline in his game and his off-the-course issues, including his 2009 personal scandal that led to divorce. In the aftermath, Woods took a hit but slowly climbed again after he returned to competition and found success.

For most of the early 2000s, Woods ranked with Jordan at the top of the "Q Score," which rates popularity and marketing appeal. In 2008, Forbes ranked Woods No. 2 on its annual Celebrity 100 list, based on fame and money. Only Oprah Winfrey was higher.

A decade later, in 2012, Bing released its top searches of the year, and one of the categories was "most searched male athletes." Woods was No. 2 on that list.

Why do we care about Tiger?

A few weeks ago, in the aftermath of Woods' announcing his return to competition, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers told a Tiger story during a news conference.

It dated to his days as coach of the Boston Celtics, and it was during a meaningless late-season game that happened to be taking place during the Masters. Boston general manager Danny Ainge informed Rivers at halftime that Woods was making a move at the Masters -- and suggested he get ejected from the game so he could leave the court and watch.

So Rivers tried to do just that, giving an official an earful that should have seen him removed from the game. The official did nothing.

Later, the referee motioned Rivers over during a free throw attempt.

"I want to watch it, too," the official said.

Rivers, an avid golfer, told ESPN this week that he misses those days.

"I just love what he brought to the game," he said. "He brought excitement to the game. My daughter asked me that other day if there was anything better in Tiger's heyday than Tiger on Sunday in all of sports -- and I couldn't come up with anything.

"I had to compare it to the Super Bowl, the NCAA championship game, a Game 7 or something like that. But that was every Sunday when Tiger played. We haven't had something like that in sports in a long time. It would be really awesome to see him come back and feel good and play."

Woods has accomplished everything in the game, winning 79 PGA Tour events, 14 majors, countless money and scoring titles. As recently as four years ago, he was No. 1 in the world -- a position he's held for 683 weeks in his career.

Now he jumped from 1,199th to No. 668 following his T-9 performance at the Hero World Challenge.

Why do we care about Tiger?

"From my viewpoint, you want to see the guy who played the game for a period of time unlike anybody who's ever played the game," said former tour player and longtime NBC analyst Gary Koch. "If he has any chance of getting anywhere near back to that form.

"That period of time from the late '90s through the mid-2000s, the game was played differently than anyone. [Jack] Nicklaus was great and played great for a long period of time. But he didn't win majors by 10, 15 shots. He didn't hit some of the shots Tiger hit. He didn't play some of the short-game shots. For a lot of us, that's fresh in our memories. You want to see if he can get anywhere near that level."

For most, including Koch, that notion is but a dream. Nobody at 42 is as good as they were at 32. And even in golf, age takes a toll, skills erode and consistency is not the same.

Nonetheless, there is still a hope that Woods can show glimpses of his old self. Perhaps he will never dominate again, but just one more victory or one more back-nine charge at Augusta would have even the most casual followers on the edge of their seats, if not scrambling to witness it in person.

Why do we care about Tiger?

Foley did his best to sum it up.

"I have a perfect explanation," he said, relating a story from several years ago when he was coaching Woods.

Foley was at the Match Play Championship in Arizona, and he was in the hotel bar, where a woman recognized him and asked if he was Tiger's coach. A dentist who did not play golf, the woman said she recognized Foley.

"I'm a huge Tiger Woods fan," she said. "I never played golf in my life. My kids are gone now, and I take nine weeks of vacation a year. And I come to where Tiger is to watch him play golf. For me, it's like watching Ali."

Foley paused.

"That's it, isn't it?" he said. "This woman who never played golf and took all her vacation time and she'd go to tournaments where there were not as many people. I think that's it. I think that is exactly why we are interested. She didn't know golf, but she just saw his greatness. She saw this aura, this energy. I thought it was fascinating."