LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He’s the man, all right. All you had to do was listen to the shrieks and the shouts. “Hey, Tigah, in the hole. Hey Tigah, over here.” No question he’s the heart of golf in America.
But Tiger Woods, who made a stirring return on a steamy, humid afternoon with a practice round in Louisville on Wednesday, also is the mystery man.
Before Wednesday, when he swept in by private jet and fancy SUV, the question was whether Woods, supposedly hurting, would be able to play in the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday.
That was answered dramatically when Woods joined Davis Love III, Steve Stricker and Harris English for a nine-hole warm-up round that evolved into a three-ring circus, fans flocking from every area of Valhalla Golf Club to join up.
Women holding replicas of the flags used on various holes pleaded, unsuccessfully, for autographs. One young man waited until Woods walked by, held up his iPhone and screamed, “Tiger, look at me so I can get both of us in the picture.”
Woods didn't look.
Now the question is how well can he play, something we’re about to learn when, in what is a star grouping, Woods joins rival Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington for the first two rounds.
On Sunday, when Woods wrenched his surgically repaired back during the final round of the Bridgestone and painfully quit after nine holes, the suspicion was he wouldn’t be playing for a while.
His sacrum went out, Woods said Wednesday when he finished. But that turned out to be easily repaired.
“Once the bone is back in,” he said of work chiropractors often do, “it’s all good. The inflammation has been down. I’ve had range of motion. As you saw out there, I got my speed, my power, and I just need to keep moving.
“Once the bone was put back in, the spasms went away, and from there I started getting some range of motions.”
Woods underwent microdiscectomy surgery March 31. He returned to competition at the Quicken Loans National tournament in late June, missing the cut. Then, two-and-a-half weeks later, he played four rounds in the British Open, three of them undistinguished and over par. At least there was progress.
When he went hobbling away at the Bridgestone, after taking an off-balance swipe in a bunker, the golf community shared his pain. No Tiger in the fourth major of the year? There was as much criticism—“You came back too soon,” was the general theme—as sympathy.
The man is 38 years old. He’s had four surgeries on his left knee. He’s had the big surgery on his back. He doesn’t want to sit around as the sand trickles through the hourglass. A golfer’s career may be longer than that of a football or baseball player, but it has a termination point.
Woods is not only battling his own body but also the dozens of other great players in pro golf—such as Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Keegan Bradley and Adam Scott—players who make every tournament a free-for-all.
If Woods wants to play, let him play. If he is reinjured, then he’s reinjured. Pitchers keep having Tommy John surgery and then, when they’ve apparently recovered, rush back to the mound, sometimes only to hurt themselves again.
Woods is a golfer who has won 14 majors. A golfer plays golf. Whether the golfer named Tiger Woods is still able to play at the level he once did can only be learned if he plays. And so to satisfy himself, and he says with the approval of medical advisers, he is determined to play.
“My physio is here,” he said of his physical therapist. “If it goes out he’s able to fix it. One of those things, again, I still need to build strength, still continue to get stronger. Just going to take more time.”
Woods won the PGA the last time it was held at Valhalla, in 2000, the third of his three major victories that year.
“Two PGAs in a row,” some spectator yelled repeatedly as Woods approached the seventh green Wednesday, ignoring the fact there’s been a 14-year gap. Tiger Woods fans are loyal, if not always logical.
“It feels great to be back here,” said Woods. “The fans are fantastic. They’re loud. They’re into it. This is a different course than in 2000. These greens are different. I have my (yardage) book from 2000. It’s useless.”
Woods hardly could be described as useless. Or clueless. Rather, he’s an enigma, an athlete returning from a serious injury who hasn’t yet shown us he’s the Tiger Woods of old. And might never show us.
“It’s not the site of the surgery,” Woods said of the recent problem. “This is something totally different. When I landed, it (the bone) jarred loose, made it come out. I’m not in any pain now. That is the good part.
“Just play well. That’s the only thing I can control. Try to go out there and win this event. Yes, I’m pain free, except for the headache of talking to you guys.”
That’s easily cured. Take two aspirin, and we'll see you in the morning.
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.