There is always a sense of regret when the men’s majors of golf are done and dusted for the year. Players target the Masters, US Open, Open and PGA Championship and so do we in the golf media. They are the high points, when our work carries most importance and we climb the rungs of running orders. But on this occasion there is a feeling that golf is not about to take its familiar path back to the editorial backwaters until Augusta in April appears back on the horizon. Of course, we have next month’s Ryder Cup to sustain us into the autumn. It promises to be an epic clash as Europe seek to wrestle back the famous gold trophy from American hands. But there is more to sustain interest than this biennial bash, golf’s biggest showcase event, which this year is being played at Le Golf National on the outskirts of Paris.
Men’s professional golf has also acquired a truly compelling narrative with the resurgence of Tiger Woods. Whatever you think of him, he is impossible to ignore. And his comeback from multiple back surgeries has gathered sufficient momentum that he is already being quoted as a 12-1 second favourite for next year’s Masters. Viewing figures in the United States for last week’s concluding men’s major, the PGA at Bellerive, were up 69 percent on last year. That’s the effect of golf being fuelled by Tiger in its tank. Woods’ weekend, shooting 66-64, to finish runner up to Brooks Koepka on a rain softened course was utterly compelling. Remember he began the championship with a bogey and double bogey on the opening two holes.
Effectively, the 42 year old gave the field a three stroke start and he was ultimately beaten by only one player who finished just two strokes better off. All this from a golfer who was ranked 1,199 in the world less than nine months ago. Now the fourteen times major champion is up to 26 in the world and twentieth in the FedEx Cup, which means he is firmly in the mix for the upcoming PGA Tour playoffs. If he keeps up his current rate of progress, Woods will provide added lustre to those events which culminate in the Tour Championship and a shoot out for $10 million in Atlanta the week before the Ryder Cup. And make no mistake, Europe will be facing him playing for the United States in France next month. Woods came up just short in qualifying but there is no way captain can leave him out of his wildcard selections. Besides, Woods came late to the qualifying party because he only returned to the PGA Tour at the start of this year. In the intervening period he has unequivocally shown he is comfortably among the top dozen golfers in America. Furyk will also be picking a different character to the one that last played Ryder Cup in 2012. On that occasion Woods conceded a putt on the last to Francesco Molinari to complete the “miracle of Medinah”, as Europe came from 10-4 down to snatch one of their most famous victories. It was also one of those occasions that left us wondering about this arch individual’s commitment to team play.
Since then, Woods has been at the heart of the American task force aimed at turning around their Ryder Cup fortunes. He was a vice captain at Hazeltine two years ago and is scheduled to lead the US in next year’s Presidents Cup. To put it bluntly, Woods is all in when it comes to playing for his country. He is a changed personality, too, because this portion of his career is a personal bonus, one that he did not think was possible less than a year ago. Yes he was frustrated to finish sixth after leading July’s Open at Carnoustie with only eight holes to go, but the defeat at Bellerive was an absolute triumph. When have we ever seenWoods look so happy to be beaten into second place? There was no wiping the smile from his face after that closing 64, even though he was a couple of shots short of landing a fifth PGA title. He climbed the bridge to the recorders’ area, his every step thunderously cheered by adoring fans, and he offered a series of Arnold Palmer style thumbs ups as he waved back in response. The old Tiger would never have found so much pleasure in a loss. The old Tiger only turned up for “the W”. And while that win still eludes him, the old Tiger would never have been so fulsome in his congratulatory hug for the champion Koepka. This does not mean his competitive instincts have softened. Woods will be on a mission at the Ryder Cup, after all he has only once been on the winning side and that was 19 years ago.
More significant to the bigger picture, his fitness in body and mind means that he is - at last - perfectly equipped to be golf’s leading ambassador. And future battles with the younger generation his past triumphs inspired to take up the game will renew and generate further interest in the sport just when it needs it most.