AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Golf needs Tiger Woods.”
That is one of the spoken or unspoken fundamental truths in sports, it seems. It is accurate to some degree, depending on how you define “need” and what you mean by “golf.” Is it television ratings? Golf Channel content? Social media buzz?
You never hear what is just as fundamental and probably truer, which is that Tiger Woods needs golf.
This is what he does and who he is. This is where he is most comfortable, even when his back has made him unbearably uncomfortable. You could see this in the way he signed on to be an assistant captain on U.S. teams for the Ryder and Presidents Cup when it hurt to even stand. You can witness it by the way he worked his head off to get back in playing shape — making stunning progress and convincing the world he was among the favorites to win the Masters this week.
All of this week, you could hear the gratitude in his voice for the chance just to play here. It is refreshing for anyone who watched him make his heyday look so grim. After made the cut with one stroke to spare at 4 over on Friday, he said, “Six months ago, I didn’t know if I’d be playing golf. Forget about the tour level. I didn’t know if I’d ever be playing again. It’s incredible to have the opportunity again, to still come out here and play this golf course.”
This is all like oxygen for him. The other day he spoke of the 2017 Masters, which he attended only briefly for the Champions Dinner. Instead of going fishing that weekend, he sat in front of his TV. “I watched every bit I possibly could,” he said Tuesday. “I love the Masters. I will always watch it. I enjoy the ambiance, the way the Masters tournament really sets up for a dramatic finish. They know how to do it and they do it right, from pin locations to tee setups. I just absolutely love watching it. It’s more fun playing it, though.”
Friday was not totally fun. He hit another ball in the water on the par-3 12th, made three bogeys and a double and shot 3-over-par 75. “I hit my irons awful today, I didn’t control my distance, my shape, spins,” he said, mindful that a bad round of golf is still better than most anything else.
We have all seen the news Woods has made away from the course over the past nine years, almost all of it not good. Golf is his refuge. It is where he gets a standing ovation just for showing up, where he is honored as being the greatest or second greatest of all time.
For more than 20 years, the relationship between Woods and his sport has been portrayed as a one-way street. The consensus has been that golf has fed off of his charisma. I think that right now, it is at least a 50-50 share, with the golfer maybe even doing more of the feeding.
There is no question that he has reshaped the sport. Ratings spike when he is in contention. The Masters and the other majors grew more prestigious because of his pursuit of their trophies. Prize money is in the stratosphere because of him. Caddies have become celebrated personalities because of the attention his bag-carriers have received.
But the majors were not canceled when he was out with his back surgeries, tournament purses were not slashed. In fact, young golfers have come along and flourished because they wanted to be like Woods.
They are the ones here now, reaching out and welcoming Woods back, congratulating him on his progress and encouraging him. He needs that.