Monday, January 2, 2017

Will 2017 be the Year of the Rooster – or the Tiger (Woods, that is)?

Are you looking forward to 2017? I’m talking about golf here – not politics, not movies, not football, baseball, basketball or tennis: strictly golf. If you are, what exactly are you looking forward to?

Let me be prescient for a moment, or try to be, and see if I can predict what you’re going to say, or what many are going to say. I predict that many, many of you will say that what you are looking forward to in golf in 2017 is The Return of Tiger Woods (though maybe that should be in all caps: THE RETURN OF TIGER WOODS.)

Ever since Woods embarked on his course of back surgeries some, what, 16, 17 months ago now? – the world of golf has been panting for The Return of The Big Cat. He teased his fans with talk of a return at the season opener of the 2016-2017 PGA Tour year at the Safeway Open in Napa, only to bail out at the last minute. (Screwed me out of a paycheck for an article on his return that I never got to write, but I’m not bitter about that – much – and the lunch spread in media dining was amazing.)

When he did return, several weeks later, it was at the Hero Challenge, an event which he hosts, sponsored by a company which sponsors him. A limited-field event for the top 18 players in the world – at a time when he was ranked 898th. (Nice to be on the selection committee, isn’t it?) OK, to be fair, his rankings slid to those depths because he hadn’t been playing, of course, not because he had been playing and had sucked.

So how did he do? He finished 15th out of 17 (Justin Rose WD’d with back pain), 14 strokes back of winner Hideki Matsuyama – but the golf world, or at least the majority of it, went berserk. “HE’S BACK!”, the headlines screamed.

Thanks to a “strong” showing against the top dozen and a half players in the world – and the OWGR’s wonky algorithms – Woods vaulted to #650 after his performance at the Hero Championship, a nosebleed-inducing ascent of 248 spots in one go, and now “Tiger’s back” is the story for 2017, as it has been for a year and a half (yes, I know – bad pun…).

Many pundits and players alike are predicting a great year for Woods in 2017 – a PGA Tour win, a strong showing in one or more majors – good things all around. Of course, the departure of Nike Golf from the hardware side of the business is a factor for Woods, among others, but many see hope in his return to the faithful Scotty Cameron putter which served him so well for so many years. He had Taylormade clubs in the bag above the irons for the Hero Championship, and has recently announced a switch to the Bridgestone B330S golf ball.

One of the big questions surrounding Woods’ return concerns the schedule he will play. Lacking a win on Tour in 2015-2016 the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua is out of the question – not that he bothered showing up for it in recent years anyway. The desert events – the Careerbuilder Challenge and Phoenix Open are out – a pro-am and a zoo. For his first event the smart money is on Torrey Pines, a venue at which he has enjoyed nearly unprecedented success, including his most recent win there, in 2013, one of the five he notched up that season.

After Torrey will he then play in the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, the scene of what is arguably the greatest triumph of his career, when he lapped the field at the 2000 U.S. Open? Despite his success there he has often bad-mouthed the greens at Pebble, which grow bumpy late in the day thanks to their poa annua content. In his last appearance there, in 2012, he was crushed by Phil Mickelson in the final round after Mickelson overcame a 6-stroke deficit to roll up his fourth win at the iconic Monterey Peninsula venue – so I’m guessing Pebble is a “no”.

Woods has committed to play in the Genesis Championship at Riviera Country Club, the location of his first PGA Tour event, at the age of 16, in 1992. His TGR Live organization is putting the event on, and it will benefit the Tiger Woods Foundation. Without that association I’d guess that he would be a no-show at Riviera; he has never favored the venue, and this will be his first time back at Riviera since 2006.

After Riviera my guess is that he is not likely to come out again until Bay Hill, out of respect for the late Arnold Palmer, and after that, of course, the Masters. Post-Masters I would bet on The Players Championship as his next event, the site of another of his five wins in 2013; it was his second win at the PGA Tour’s flagship event, his first having come in 2001.

After mid-May my crystal ball gets fuzzy, with moments of clarity around the time of the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – assuming that between playing and practicing his back woes don’t return, or some other injury doesn’t jump up and make itself known in his increasingly creaky, cranky 41-year-old body.

There are many in golf, media and fans alike, who think that Tiger Woods is Good for Golf. If by “golf” one means TV ratings for the PGA Tour then I think that they have a point. People tune in to watch him, as the ratings for the 2016 Hero Championship show – they were exactly double the number for 2015, increasing by 100% over the previous years, and viewership more than doubled, with a 115% increase over 2015. If we’re talking about the larger concept of the game of golf, though, I don’t think it means much to business at your local golf course whether Woods is in the field at that weeks’ PGA Tour event or on the sofa with a bowl of Froot Loops at his mansion in Jupiter.

That being said, there are any number of people playing the game recreationally, and maybe even professionally, who will tell you that Tiger is the reason they got into the game. For them, though the Chinese calendar calls 2017 the Year of the Rooster, they are hoping that it will turn out to be another Year of the Tiger.

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