Tiger's back on the tee, and the whole golf world is better off for it

By T.J. Auclair
Published on
Tiger's back on the tee, and the whole golf world is better off for it

Golf just isn’t the same without Tiger Woods. For well over a year now, we’ve lived that sad truth. It’s just not the same.

On Thursday, though, the needle moves again. The recently-turned 41-year-old will make his 2017 PGA Tour debut at a familiar place when he tees it up at Torrey Pines – a venue where he’s won a staggering eight times as a professional – for the Farmers Insurance Open. It will mark Tiger’s first official PGA Tour start since August 2015 at the Wyndham Championship, where he finished in a tie for 10th.

Woods has won on the PGA Tour 79 times, trailing only Sam Snead. He has 14 championships in majors, trailing only Jack Nicklaus. His record is unmatched in the last 30 years. He is one of the world’s most recognizable athletes, a global ambassador for the game. He has, in many way, changed the face of golf.

But absurd as it may sound, what he hasn’t done may define his legacy. Think about it: He might be the unluckiest superstar the game has ever seen. Mostly because of injuries, Woods has missed all or parts of seven seasons since turning pro in 1996.

RELATED: A timeline of Tiger Woods injuries and how he's fared in returns

What could a healthy Tiger Woods have accomplished? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this week’s comeback, after his longest layoff yet, comes with tempered expectations and the realization that this could be his last charge. If he has another injury setback, can Woods put himself through the rigorous rehabilitation again that is necessary to compete on the PGA Tour? Will he?

And make no mistake; “compete” is the operative word with Woods.

If there is one thing that Woods has made clear throughout his illustrious career, it is that he will not quietly fade into oblivion as a sentimental figure. He won’t play as a has-been or a once-was. He is still very much playing to win.

Still, if we’re expecting to see early-2000s Tiger again, we may be disappointed. At the height of his career, he won a preposterous eight of 11 majors, beginning at the 1999 PGA Championship. All the great young players today -- Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and loads of others – followed his blueprint on how to play the game.

Do you think any of those young players, all of them major champions now, will be intimidated, like Tiger’s contemporaries were 17 years ago, to see his name pop up on page 1 of a leaderboard?

No chance. He showed them how to win.

As recently as December, Woods said that he believes reaching Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships is still possible. That seems a stretch coming from a player who hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open.

Only three men in golf history – Old Tom Morris (46 at the 1867 Open Championship; 43 at the 1863 Open Championship; 41 at the 1862 Open championship), Julius Boros (48 at the 1968 PGA Championship; 43 at the 1963 U.S. Open) and Mark O’Meara (1998 Masters and Open Championship) – have won multiple majors at age 41 or older.

Yet anyone who ever has seen Woods play knows that he loves to prove his critics wrong. We may not see the brilliance as often any more. But no one is saying we’ll never see it again.

In the 34 majors contested since his last major win – Woods missed 10 of them nursing injuries – he has compiled nine top-6 finishes, his best being a runner-up showing to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine. That happened to be the first time in his career that Woods was unable to close out a 54-hole lead.

His last major top 10 was a tie for sixth at the 2013 Open Championship. And, remarkably, only twice since his first Masters as a pro has Tiger finished outside the top 20 in the season’s first major. That was a tied for 22nd in 2004 and a tie for 40th in 2012. His next Masters appearances resulted in a win and a tie for fourth.

In December, we caught a glimpse of Woods in competition for the first time in 15 months when he played in his own Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. He finished 15th out of 17 players in a relaxed event with minimal pressure. Yet we saw enough from Woods to get excited about the latest comeback.

His swing was far less violent in December than the ones that likely caused a lot of his injuries. It was controlled and smooth. In the second round, he fired a bogey-free, 7-under 65. Scores of 70 and 76 over that weekend left plenty to be desired. But for the first time in months, Woods appeared to make it through four rounds free of pain.

So how will he fare at Torrey Pines where, as always, all eyes will be on his every move? A cut made, 72 holes played and no setbacks would seem to be a great start.

But if Woods has his sights set on a “W,” can we blame him? After all, his record at Torrey Pines is remarkable – eight wins as a pro, seven in the Farmers, the last coming in 2013.

Regardless of the outcome, Woods will be playing in the first of four tournaments he has scheduled in a five-week stretch. It’s not the same it once was. But it’s a start.

And it sure will be nice just to have Big Cat back, won’t it?