On one hand, it’s surprising that Tiger Woods is going to tee it up this week in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. On the other hand, it very much is not.
Woods committed to the event — which his foundation hosts — last Friday during the Phoenix Open. Players at TPC Scottsdale were taken by surprise as they were informed of his return after their rounds. This makes sense because while Woods played in three majors last year, he limped (literally and figuratively) to the finish line. He withdrew from the Hero World Challenge with plantar fasciitis and then looked physically stifled in appearances at The Match and the PNC Championship.
When he said he wanted to play a few events in addition to the major championships in 2023, I think everyone presumed those extra events would probably come later in the year — perhaps the Players Championship or even the Memorial in the summer, a tournament he’s dominated over the course of his career. Nope. Woods will tee it up at an event where he’s relatively struggled (and famously never won).
The flip side of this is: What else is Tiger going to do? The Cat is a golfer, and given the nature of the sport, even with a body that’s broken, he will always be a golfer. His desire to compete and mix it up with the boys, so to speak, is insatiable, and he’s going to take any opportunity to do so that his body will grant him.
“I’m excited to go out there and compete and play with these guys,” said Woods on Tuesday at Riviera. “And I would not have put myself out here if I didn’t think I could beat these guys and win the event. That’s my mentality. If I wasn’t ready to win at this level, I am very rusty, but I’ve come off a rusty situation before. I’ve done well and I’ve had to utilize a lot of those tactics in practice in build up. I know this golf course. I know I haven’t had a lot of success on this golf course, but I knew what to practice for, shots to hit at home getting ready.”
This is the complicated intersection at which we find ourselves with Woods. His desire to play competitive golf is still high, but his ability to do so is not. Woods, it became clear at the PGA Championship last spring at Southern Hills, often doesn’t know how his body is going to respond from day to day. He’s going to play when we don’t (and maybe even he doesn’t) expect him to do so. And he’s not going to play when we do (and he does) expect him to do so.
Such is the conundrum of having a body and an aspiration that are often on different pages.
So what should we expect from Tiger Woods this week at Riviera?
The short (and easy) answer is … not much. Woods has at 68th-place finish, a T15 and a missed cut in his last three starts at Riviera, but the T15 came during a year in which he was mostly healthy and playing often. Throw in the fact that he missed the cut at St. Andrews last summer and wasn’t even able to finish that PGA, and it’s difficult to envision him competing.
This is seemingly a controversial position to take in the world of golf fandom. Everyone loves to lose their minds when Tiger sticks a peg in the ground. The reality, though, is that Woods turns 48 this year and has given no indication since his horrific car crash that he is physically capable of climbing the mountain into consistent competition on the PGA Tour or at major championships.
Does that make him a ceremonial golfer? I don’t know. What it does make him, though, is somebody who, for all his once-in-a-generation qualities, is not currently able to throw anything at the Jon Rahms, Scottie Schefflers and Rory McIlroys of the world that they can’t easily swat away.
Reality is a little more complicated than this because Tiger, perhaps more than anyone, can play golf courses with his mind, and, when his body cooperates, can still hit world-class golf shots. So there are going to be days where he shoots 67 and leaves the golf world breathless. There are going to be shots that make you believe in something.
Given the nature of his body, though, those moments won’t last. They will be fleeting. Woods has two issues on his hands.
The first is that even though his desire to compete is still extraordinary, his mental willingness to put his body through the rigors it needs to be put through to contend has waned. The second is that even if it hadn’t waned, his body is no longer sturdy enough to be put through any rigors at all. Still, Woods won’t concede his competitiveness.
“I know that players have played and they are ambassadors of the game and try to grow the game,” said Woods. “I can’t … wrap my mind around that as a competitor. If I’m playing in the event I’m going to try and beat you. I’m there to get a W, OK?”
Add all this up, and you get something that has never really been part of the Woods zeitgeist. When you hold his body’s capability, his heart’s longing and his mind’s exhaustion all in tension with one another, you get a man who is likely going to play some confusing golf over the next few years. Glimpses of the past but also glimpses of the future — and they will be very different views. The only way, now, to sum up where Woods is at is to acknowledge that the only proper way to view weeks like Riviera — and really any that he plays is that, because of his body’s uneven recovery patterns — is that on a day-to-day or even week-to-week basis, we should almost always expect the completely unexpected.