A Sporting View – Out of the woods and into the fire

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By Mark Vasto

We live in a time in which we expect our athletes to be exceptional, to become “human cheat-codes” in the video-game parlance, and not simply adequate or even effective. For perhaps no other professional athlete, that sentiment rings far too true for one golfer – Tiger Woods, the King, one might say, of heightened expectations.

As the PGA Tour’s so-called 2017 November-December Challenge Season (or as some refer to the official-ish slate of shootout and skins tournaments that don’t count toward a player’s official earnings, the “Silly Season”) begins, Tiger Woods has signaled he is all in. The problem is, he doesn’t know what that means quite yet.

The embattled former champion who once seemed destined to break every one of Jack Nicklaus’ records, the player who even made Augusta National reconfigure (read “Tiger-proof”) its hallowed links, now is looked upon as a larger-than-life curiosity. Never mind wondering if the man can win another major when the question now is: Can he even walk?

Since his late May DUI arrest, where we learned his search for a cure from back pain included taking copious amounts of pills – Ambien, Dilaudid, THC, Vicodin and Xanax were found in his system – Tiger has been in hybrid pain and pill management. After his fourth back surgery in July fused together portions of his spinal cord, Tiger immediately set his sights on the course.

In late November, the legend himself returned to the Hero World Challenge, where he cautioned anyone looking for heroics. “I don’t know how hard I can hit it, what shots can I play … I’m still learning this body,” Woods said. “Once I get a better understanding, I can give you a better answer.”

The Hero World Challenge was just the third tournament Tiger Woods has played in for the past two years. His exodus has been neatly filled by the arrival of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler. Unsurprisingly, the competitor who finished 15th in a field of 17 last year, who hasn’t won a tournament since 2014, who hasn’t played an official round in 10 months, still shows plenty of spark when their names come up.

“In an ideal world, I would like to have them feel what some of them had to go against all those years,” Woods said.

Can Tiger win back his awe-stricken fan base and return to anything remotely like his championship form? All we know is that he’s not out of the woods yet, and that’s the real challenge.

Mark Vasto is a veteran sportswriter who lives in New Jersey.

(c) 2017 King Features Synd., Inc.


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