All eyes on the Tiger. Who knows how many more chances we’ll get

John Craven

Tiger Woods (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

By the time Muhammad Ali entered the ring to fight Larry Holmes in 1980, the man famous for floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee was a shadow of his former self.

Ali might’ve still believed he was the greatest, but even his most ardent supporters worried that the fight was beyond his reach. When the bell rang for round one, their worst fears were quickly realised.

From the off, Ali laboured on his feet. He didn’t throw a punch in anger for ten rounds and if it wasn’t for the heartbroken Holmes, who had long idolised Ali, mercifully pulling his punches, a boxing tragedy could’ve ended decidedly worse.

As it happened, Ali was stopped for the first time in his career as a misguided quest for four world heavyweight crowns ended in gut-wrenching disappointment. That he fought one more time after that, knowing all we do now about how the sweet science of boxing burdened his later life, is regrettable, if not a little reprehensible. But ultimately it was Ali, an icon that transcended sport and broke down barriers, that decided how he was to go out. At the very least, he had earned the right to choose. Boxing owed that much to Ali, though it’s hard not to feel that the great man owed so much more to himself.

The reason I bring up Ali is because another icon of sport returns to action this week at Riviera, and like Ali, many would argue such comebacks at this stage are doing Tiger Woods more harm than good.

I am not one of those people.

While Helen Lovejoy might cry “would someone please think of the children” at the sight of Woods hobbling along after a wee white ball that has served his life so well, I say let him, as long as he’s willing and able. And right now, Woods is absolutely able to play golf.

The Big Cat with nine lives proved himself capable of making the cut on one leg at the Masters last year where Koepka, Spieth and Schauffele were just some of the names to fall short. Now almost a year further down the road in recovery, who’s to say Woods can’t produce even more? He certainly thinks he can.

“I’m excited to go out there and compete and play with these guys. And I would not have put myself out here if I didn’t think I could beat these guys and win the event,” said Woods, convinced his leg has improved, albeit concerned about his ankle coping with the strain of walking a hopeful 72-holes.

You can be sure that the day Tiger Woods admits to the press that he doesn’t think he can win will be the day he retires. At the Masters last year, he sat before the media proclaiming the same self-belief. It’s an unapologetic quality of Woods, deep within his DNA. It bellows back to a young kid who rocked up to clubhouses across America and often wouldn’t be welcomed in, only to ask for directions to the first tee and demand to know the course record. Woods played with a burning desire to break records, make history and above all else, win. Second was only ever as good as last ,and while he conceded making the cut at the Masters last year was a proud achievement, such small victories won’t sustain this latest comeback. For Woods, winning remains everything, and he’s in Riviera to get the job done.

OK, maybe it is bravado over belief. Maybe the man, the myth, the legend is up there keeping up appearances; his mind willing but the body not. But even if it’s a case of Woods trying to convince himself more so than others, who are we to question how he thinks? Woods’ mentality cannot ever be questioned. It’s alien to the average golfer. It’s otherworldly. Pádraig Harrington describes it as his superpower.

“It’s a players job to create his own reality and in that matter, optimism is better than realism. It’s a pundit’s job to be realistic,” Harrington tweeted.

“Without competitive practice it would be one of Tiger’s greatest achievements to win here but if nothing else, Tiger will be motivated.

“It always amazed me how well Tiger prepared for tournaments without playing competitively in the run-up to them. His home practice must’ve been very disciplined to create a competitive mindset in practice. Definitely a super power of his long before performance coaches.”

What do I expect to see from Tiger Woods this week at Riviera? Honestly, I have absolutely no idea. He could play all four rounds or withdraw after one. He could win, or finish dead last. I’m expecting everything and nothing all at once, but I would say I’m surprised to see him so soon into the season.

Greedy me hopes this week goes well so there could be another glimpse of the great man prior to the Masters, but I’m done trying to predict the career of Tiger Woods. He owes the game nothing, and he certainly owes me nothing. He’s the reason I’m writing this article. Like countless others, he’s the reason I first picked up a club and thought golf was cool. And just by seeing him out there at Riviera means a little part of me can cling to a time in my life when my only worry was trying to recreate Tiger’s club twirl at the local club.

I’ve reached a point where any Woods appearance is a bonus, and I’m going to drink him in for as long as time allows. That’s a mindset I share with England’s Aaron Rai it seems who took time out of his own Genesis preparations this week to follow Woods for nine holes during Wednesday’s bitterly cold morning Pro-am.

“How often am I going to get an opportunity like this?” Rai reasoned to reporters on site.

Sinking into the couch tonight for four-plus hours of Tiger TV from 8.04pm, I’ll be asking myself the exact same question.

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