The footage is a little grainy, captured furtively outside a Los Angeles hotel, the pixels distorted in that cheap green-grey hue that’s signature of the nighttime paparazzi. It’s him but his facial expression is hidden behind a mask; he’s walking without crutches but there is, perhaps, still a discernible limp in that right leg; a foam cast makes it impossible to discern the scars of the crash that lurched Tiger Woods’s life into doubt and still controls his every movement.
In a sense, it still commands golf too. The ambiguous five-second clip of Woods released last week was analysed on social media with the granular detail of a Netflix special. It elicited optimism and caution, prophesies of a currently unfathomable comeback and premonitions of permanent stay outside the ropes. Like so much of Woods’s life, the truth remains shrouded in mystery and guarded by a closed circle and so, when small snippets escape, the public duly seize on them with all powers of imagination.
But if the rare sighting of Woods walking unaided revealed little, it told more of his lasting hold on golf – or rather, how the sport has yet to come to terms with letting him go. Since Woods’s astonishing victory at The Masters in 2019, there have been nine different major champions, the emergence of new leads like Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau, a Ryder Cup victory that supposedly marked a detachment from the past, and the increasingly greasy machinations of breakaway attempts from the traditional PGA Tour in the background. Without Woods, the star that propelled the sport into a different stratosphere and spun everything in his orbit, golf has been reckoning and wrestling with the shape of its future.
There has hardly been an absence of excitement, but amid the quiet hangover of the PGA Tour’s informal off-season, the hankering has returned again. Last week, Justin Thomas, one of Woods’s close friends, who has regularly visited the 45-year-old’s home over the past few months, offered fresh hope. “I know he’s going to try [to make a comeback],” he told the No Laying Up podcast. “I know he’s gonna want to at least try to give something again. Obviously, I hope he does. But at the same time, as long as he can be a normal dad again, that’s the No 1 priority and the rest is a bonus.”
There have also been spurious rumours about Woods’ yacht, aptly named Privacy, docking in the Bahamas, breathing life into the theory that he could make a rare public appearance at the Genesis Invitational, an unofficial event hosted by his foundation at the end of the month.
It is the same gripping pattern that has reigned ever since Woods’ personal life publicly unravelled in 2009. The golfing world remains in thrall to the various editions and increasing improbability of his comebacks. In 2018, a year sandwiched between his haggard mugshot being plastered across the front pages and his breathtaking fifth victory at Augusta, he recognised the fact he was even still competing as “a walking miracle”. And so, it’s somehow feasible to maintain belief in the supernatural, a hope that exists in a sort of half-life as Woods recovers from a pain he’s described as incomparable to the catalogue of debilitating injuries he’s already endured. It’s golf’s most tantalising storyline, even in its decline.
It’s also, at least in part, why golf’s future without Woods remains as open-ended as ever, too. Rarely a magnetic moral compass, he did twice reject lucrative invitations to compete in Saudi Arabia and, without his participation, the notion of a breakaway tour always felt somewhat obsolete. It is hardly a shock that the rumblings of yet another rival proposition, with Greg Norman as its profiting stooge, has significantly accelerated as of late. The PGA Tour is putting up defences and making consolation offerings, and a new generation of players are embracing more power than ever before. After more than two decades revolving around Woods’s presence, the protagonists, opportunists, sportswashers and green-eyed monsters are pulling golf in new directions. And yet, still, they all remain in tow to the blurred visage of Woods at the end of the lens.