Saturday 18 August 2018

Nobody watching Woods comeback need ask for forgiveness if they dare to dream a little

Tiger Woods smiles during Tuesday's practice round of the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at Albany. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Tiger Woods smiles during Tuesday's practice round of the Hero World Challenge golf tournament at Albany. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Brian Keogh

Arnold Palmer did a lot to make professional golf the sporting behemoth it is today.

Quite apart from injecting a little the razzmatazz into the game with the help of Arnie's Army, marketing genius Mark McCormack and the other members of the Big Three, his decision to invest in the Golf Channel in 1994 has been a huge game-changer for the sport.

As the 'Orlando Sentinel' reported two years ago, coinciding with its 20th anniversary, the critics were merciless when a 24-hour golf channel was launched in January 1995.

"Twenty-four hours of chubby guys in bad clothes speaking in jargon that only they understand," was 'Tennis' magazine's take.

Fast forward 22 years and it's a minor miracle that audiences in over 100 million homes in more than 80 countries worldwide will tune in to see Tiger Woods' latest attempt to recover a sliver of his lost glory tonight.

As business decisions go, this was Palmer's sixth Major win. But it took faith.

"Boys," he said after one tense meeting over money, "if I hadn't tried to hit it through the trees a few times, none of us would be here."

Woods' comeback is another shot to nothing, and, in truth, he's the reason the channel still exists today. And if we are all getting a little over-excited about his return in a laid-back, silly-season event, we shouldn't feel guilty.

Tiger redefined golf for the masses and the men and women who play it for a living from the moment he turned professional in 1996.

PGA Tour purses were a shade under $66 million when he said "Hello, World," that August day.

Nine months later, he was Masters champion and by 2008, the year he won his 14th and most recent Major championship at Torrey Pines, the pros were playing for $278 million.

A year later, 'Forbes' confirmed that Woods was the first athlete to earn $1 billion dollars.

Little wonder then that the people who've grown up watching Woods take the game to hitherto unforeseen heights over the past 20 years have been counting down the days since the 41-year-old announced his latest comeback after ten months away from the game following back surgery.

Wracked by injuries, it's his third comeback in four years at the same event and while the cynics may say it's a sign of bad times for golf in general, it's still a remarkable tale and nobody need ask forgiveness for daring to dream a little.

Whatever he achieves in this week's 18-man Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas - an event that benefits his charitable foundation - Woods' presence on the first tee today is a minor miracle considering he underwent back fusion surgery just last April.

It could be argued that the excitement about his return speaks volumes about the current state of the game. But it goes beyond that.

Humiliated globally in late May when he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence after being found asleep at the wheel of his car, engine running, this isn't just a tale of a sporting great attempting what might be a final comeback but also a human story of a father looking for little self-respect.

Even Graeme McDowell has spoken recently of his desire to get back to where he was in 2010 so can have his kids run out on the green to hail the conquering hero.

Woods is no different and having watched the rise of the current generation of stars from Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas to Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, he also wants some of the young stars to feel a little of his power.

The pre-tournament chat about him outdriving Johnson and Fowler in practice is all very well but every golfer worth his salt, from this humble hacker to three-time Major winner Pádraig Harrington, is hoping he can tee it up and emerge unscathed after four days without collapsing in pain or falling victim the yips.

Only the wildly optimistic (some would say, unhinged) are expecting him to challenge for victory. Most just want to see Zeus throw the occasional lightning bolt.

After all, the Golf Channel doesn't just have a researcher these days, it has a 'Senior Researcher' in the brilliant Justin Ray, whose statistical nuggets have kept the Woods comeback story sizzling for the last few days.

"Seventy-two players, including Tiger, had 100 or more rounds in Majors from 1997 through 2013," Ray tweeted earlier this week. "Best cumulative score to par in that group: Tiger Woods: -126 Steve Flesch: +125 Phil Mickelson: +128. A 251-stroke difference over 2nd-best."

With numbers like that, surely only the coldest fish could resist reaching for that remote control tonight.

Irish Independent

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