Tiger’s return captivates golf but fallen star is unlikely to hit heights again in new world order
Near the end of May a photograph taken in a Florida police station reverberated around the world. It showed Tiger Woods like never before, eyelids drooping, skin sagging, expressionless. It was a still image but it seemed like his face had been fixed that way for hours.
This was surely the end. Woods had been arrested by Jupiter Police Department with a cocktail of drugs in his system including marijuana, painkillers and sleeping tablets.
Dashcam footage showed a sporting icon barely able to walk; the thought of Woods the golfer had never seemed further away.
Yet in 12 days' time Woods will make his comeback when he competes in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas against some of the best players in the world.
The list of entrants features Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed.
It is a tournament Woods organises himself and evidently he has not lost his sense of humour, thanking the "committee of one" for his chance to play.
The clamour of interest surrounding his latest return illustrates just how much golf still desires its biggest star, even now, nearly a decade on from his 14th and most recent Major championship triumph.
We have been here before, of course, anticipating a comeback, but from such a visible nadir this one feels different.
Woods has been tantalising fans with Instagram clips of what appears to be powerful hitting. Might he really be back, a force again?
Surely the 41-year-old with a litany of past injuries cannot compete with the new generation of long hitters routinely carrying the ball 320 yards off the tee.
Journalists asked Fowler, who had been practising with Woods: "Is it true he has been driving the ball past yours?"
"Oh yeah, way by," came the reply.
It is not only the media he has captivated. Fowler is part of the pack of young players at the top of the game who grew up idolising Woods - like his buddy Justin Thomas who said taking lunch with the 41-year-old after winning his first Major affected him more than the triumph itself.
Woods has been quiet about his return, but yesterday Jason Day revealed he is in buoyant mood.
"He did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years," Day said. "He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great.
"From what I hear, he's hitting it very long. And, if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us, because it's Tiger Woods."
Is it an indictment of the game that no one has been able to imprint their talent and personality in the same way since?
It is certainly a reflection of how the game is more competitive than ever - Woods' record streak of 281 weeks at World No 1 looks pretty safe and perhaps the days of one player producing an era of dominance are simply over.
Maybe that's OK - Justin Rose insisted the game is in a healthy place going forwards with or without Woods. "I think to have him back is just a bonus," Rose said.
Last week, Sergio Garcia sounded a word of caution. "Obviously having Woods for golf is great - we all know that and whoever doesn't agree is not telling the truth. Anything that can help the game of golf is good for us and, hopefully, he can make it. But that's a big question mark we all have."
That question won't be fully answered by Woods' performance at the Hero World Challenge but it will indicate how far he has come and whether the ingredients are there to truly compete at a Major tournament again.
His most famous photograph will never be a police mugshot, of course.
There are many choices but perhaps it is the image of a 21-year-old Woods accepting his first Green Jacket from Nick Faldo, hanging loosely off the shoulders of a young grinning champion.
He almost certainly won't hit those heights again, but he has the chance to turn the dial back to golf, and the sport is ready to receive him as gratefully as ever. (© Independent News Service)