HOYLAKE, England — Suddenly, golf is more than a four-letter word. It's an attraction, a mystery, a sport so significant ESPN is providing live coverage on its website of every shot hit by the man who's the cause of it all: Tiger Woods.
Tiger in the Open Championship—in a major for the first time this year—being held on the course, Royal Liverpool, where he won in 2006. The Return of the Tiger, film at 11.
The man is back, literally and maybe figuratively.
"He always adds a lot of buzz," said Rory McIlroy. Still, there's back, as in returning to competition, and there's back, as in returning to the top of the pack, where he hasn't been for a major in six years.
He's not going to win this one either, right? We were advised as much by Curtis Strange, Paul Azinger and Andy North, all major champions commenting for ESPN a few days ago in a network press conference.
Out more than three months after a March 31 microdiscectomy on his back, Woods recovered quickly enough to enter the Quicken Loans tournament at the end of June but missed the cut.
Not bad: two rounds before many thought he would be able to play one. Not good: failing to hit shots properly. Progress, but how much?
There was a time you didn't dare dismiss Tiger Woods, no matter the state of his body—he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a leg-and-a-half—or the state of his game. To paraphrase the Jim Croce lyrics, you didn't tug on Tiger's cape.
Now, everyone tugs away. The believers have become doubters.
"We haven't seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now, so...back injury, not playing well, hasn't played any competitive golf in over three months now, pushing four months, it's hard to expect anything out of anybody," Strange said on the ESPN conference call.
"I hope he makes the cut. I hope he hits solid shots. I hope he progresses. But I don't think you could ever expect him to be on the first page of the leaderboard come the weekend. And that's just from common sense. That's talking about the great Tiger Woods. If it was Paul, Andy or I—normal people—I'm not even sure we would go over there."
Tiger wasn't sure he would be here either, but once the nerve problem was corrected—"When [my] knee was bad," he said Tuesday, "I could still do things; with this back, I just couldn't get out of bed"—he was going to try.
"That's one of reasons playing [Quicken Loans] was such a big moment for me," he said. "I didn't have any setbacks."
What then would be an acceptable finish for Woods in this 143rd Open? No peeking. You already know the answer.
"First," he said. "That's always been the case."
But he hasn't finished first in a major for six years, and at the last several majors (the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic, the 2012 Open Championship and the 2013 Open Championship come to mind) he faded over the weekend.
That wasn't like Tiger. Or perhaps as he approaches 40—he's 38 now—it is like Tiger.
Maybe his problems could be attributed to the back injury, which became noticeable in late winter this year but which he may have covered up months before that. Notah Begay, Woods' former teammate at Stanford, then a tour player and now an announcer for the Golf Channel, said Woods had been affected a long while.
"Now," said Woods, "I'm only going to get stronger and faster, which is great."
Great for golf as much as Woods. "Tiger Woods," said McIlroy, "has been the face of the game for 15, nearly 20 years, I guess. So to have him back, have him competing is important. It's a good opportunity as well for other guys to stand up and be counted."
Those other guys include Adam Scott, who is the 12-1 betting favorite, according to Vegas Insider. Tied with McIlroy for second in the odds, at 15-1, is Woods, whose reputation appears to disregard reality.
"I think it gets harder every year," Woods said of winning majors, "just because the fields get deeper."
That 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was his 14th major, four fewer than Jack Nicklaus. But the drought has lasted longer than any period during a pro career, which for Woods began in August 1996.
"More guys with a chance to win," Woods said. "Guys who are coming out here are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic. When I came out, I think averaged just under 300 yards [with a driver]. I walked with Gary Woodland, and he said, he found a driver and ball he can get 320 again in the air.
"So the game has changed a lot since then."
Tiger Woods also has changed. He used to win majors, including the last one played at Royal Liverpool. Sweet memories.
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.