Woods is now ranked sixth in the world, and, his body holding up, will headline golf at the Olympics in Japan next year.
The players seemed to be having fun. Smiling after dunking shots into the water, ribbing each other in a scripted sort of way, and just having a marvellously funny day out in the sun in spite of playing spectacularly bad golf. I think it seemed contrived simply because it’s hard to believe that any golfer, let alone four of the top players on the planet, can display such a sunny demeanour while their games unravel. Or perhaps, like Sam Snead once said, pro golfers are just so much better at picking themselves up after getting their teeth knocked in every now and then.
That is not to say that GolfTv’s hyped Skins game featuring Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Hideki Matsuyama that was held at the Accordia Golf Narashino Golf Club in Japan wasn’t fun to watch. If the objective of the exhibition-style, made-for-television event, was to be different from the week-after-week fare that we watch on pro tours, then it certainly nailed that. How often are you likely to see the likes of McIlroy, Matsuyama and Day hit it into the water on the same hole in quick succession? And then proceed to laugh it off? That’s precisely what transpired on the 177-yard par-3 fifth hole: all Woods needed to do, (after hitting a reasonably terrible tee shot himself that just about stayed dry) was to get up and down for par to win the hole.
To be fair, we golf fans are just so conditioned to watching hyper-competitive tour events, that the casual attitude of the players in the Skins game seemed a bit callous. But once you got past that, it was fun to watch the players letting their hair down, not dialled in as if their lives depended on it. The ‘mystery challenges,’ ranged from banal to interesting: the highlight was the par-5 13th hole which each player had to play with just a single club. Day pulled out a 6-iron and hit the shot of the day from a greenside bunker for a tap-in par.
The Skins format is incredibly fun to watch, and justified that when the match went down to the wire—Day sealed it on the 18th hole. The secondary objective of the event was to drum up interest in the PGA Tour’s latest event, and it’s first ever in Japan—the Zozo Championship—that was played last week. All eyes were on Woods, who returned to competitive golf after yet another knee surgery in August this year; while he wasn’t bouncing about, and looked more than a tad tired at the end of the day, Woods appeared to be swinging without discomfort.
While he lost the Japan Skins to Day, it’s now apparent that underneath all the banter, Woods used the event to get a measure of the greens, and fine-tune his course strategy. Just how well he did that, was apparent when, in spite of opening with three bogies in the first round of the Zozo Championship, Woods shot nine birdies to open his account with a six-under 64 to take the lead on the first day and then went out and shot an encore the second day. Another seven strokes over the weekend and Woods came home with three shots to spare over local favourite Hideki Matsuyama.
At the turn of the millennium, if you’d ask this columnist, whether Woods would be able to match Sam Snead’s mark of career 82 wins on the PGA Tour then I would have told you that it was a no-brainer. At that point Woods seemed set to overhaul pretty much every record in the game. But the script changed after stress fractures in his knee forced Woods out of the game in 2014—for three years he couldn’t even swing a club. “Probably the low point was not knowing if I’d ever be able to live pain-free again,” he said recently. “Am I going to be able to sit, stand, walk, lay down without feeling the pain that I was in? I just didn’t want to live that way. Is this how the rest of my life is going to be?”
Woods came back after a radical fusion surgery to play his first full season in years and pulled off his 80th win—his first in over five years—at the TOUR Championship in 2018. The high point was winning The Masters Tournament in April this year, his 15th major title and 81st win overall. Unfortunately, his knee gave way yet again, making him a doubtful starter at the Zozo Championship.
No one expected Woods to win; most commentators just wanted to see him get through four rounds without pain, or recurrence of injury. And the man himself looked singularly focused on precisely that—swinging at what seemed like 75%, placing the ball around the course, and making no attempt to overpower the course. What worked like a dream was his trusty blade putter—Woods led the field in strokes gained on the greens and just holed everything. In the process he looked almost nonchalant as he made his way up the leaderboard, sealing it with three shots to spare.
And just like that, he’s back, again. Woods is now ranked sixth in the world, and, his body holding up, will headline golf at the Olympics in Japan next year. I wouldn’t put it past him to win it: I mean how do you bet against Tiger Woods.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game