Column: The Tiger comeback becomes the Tiger tease
NAPA, Calif. – The Tiger comeback has become the Tiger tease.
And not just for golf fans.
It can't be easy for Tiger Woods to feel healthy enough to play, only for the little voices in his head telling him to wait.
For all the speculation about what's going on with Woods, only he knows why his game would be good enough to commit to the Safeway Open one day, and why three days later it was not. That wouldn't seem to leave much time for what he said was "a lot of soul searching and honest reflection" before deciding to withdraw.
Woods said on Sept. 7 that he hoped to play this week in the Safeway Open at Silverado, along with the Turkish Airlines Open in early November and his Hero World Challenge the first week of December in the Bahamas. His progress following two back surgeries last year allowed him to make such plans, which looked more like a reality when he officially entered the Safeway Open on Friday.
He was gone before he was ever back.
The portable signs leading to Silverado flashed a warning to drivers to "expect delays" because of the golf tournament. Traffic isn't likely to be an issue any longer. Wine tasting goes back to being the main event.
There was no shortage of apologies from Woods. He was fully aware of the ramifications. He said he had every intention of playing and wouldn't have entered if he felt otherwise. "This isn't what I wanted to happen," he said.
It was the right decision because it was his decision.
Woods showed plenty of loyalty to the PGA Tour by also canceling in Turkey, which will attract a strong field as part of the final stretch of events in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. That leaves the Bahamas as his next comeback, subject to change.
Most disconcerting to Woods is that according to his statement, this had nothing to do with his health, and everything to do with his confidence.
It's one thing to say his game is not ready. It's another to say his game is vulnerable.
Vulnerable to what — scoring or scrutiny?
The 14 months since Woods last played have been filled with mixed messages. Woods has used defeatist terms like "I've had a pretty good run" and saying anything else he accomplishes in golf "will be gravy." Then again, he has never failed to express his desire to play again.
Jesper Parnevik, in an interview with Golf Digest in the November issue, said they have played nine holes at the Medalist Golf Club in Florida and "by the way, he's been hitting a lot of balls, and he's hitting it great."
"On the range, at least, his trajectory and ball flight are like the Tiger we knew 15 years ago," Parnevik said.
Hank Haney, his former swing coach, said Tuesday on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio that a well-known tour pro watched Woods about a month ago in Florida and described every other chip or pitch as "a blade or a chunk."
The mystery deepens.
Golfers say all the time that their expectations are higher than anything the fans can put on them. That especially rings true in this case. Does anyone really expect Woods to play anything like the Woods who toyed with competition for more than a decade? Probably not. But does Woods expect that?
The aura of Woods is not what it was and never will be again. That's simply age. Woods is 40 and seems a lot older because of seven surgeries, including three on his back in the last 30 months. He has been gone from golf from 14 months and it feels much longer.
Johnny Miller, the NBC Sports analyst and host at Silverado, suggested Monday that Woods "has got to break the ice sometime." Even with the attention Woods brings, the Safeway Open would have been a safe return. It's the middle of football season and baseball playoffs. More than anything, it would have been a start.
Now it feels like stage fright.
Woods does not want to return until he feels he can compete. He missed a full week of practice while being an assistant at the Ryder Cup two weeks ago, though that still doesn't explain why he felt good enough to return to the PGA Tour on Friday and withdrew on Monday.
Woods says he wants to play. He says his body will allow him to play.
But he's not playing. He's waiting.
The scrutiny has never left him, and it never will. And until he plays again, his game will always feel vulnerable.