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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, January 03, 2018 1:00 am

Aging Woods remains PGA's central figure

DOUG FERGUSON | Associated Press

KAPALUA, Hawaii – The PGA Tour rings in the new year at Kapalua for the 20th straight time. After all these years, the one moment that stands above all others was the titanic battle between Tiger Woods and Ernie Els in 2000.

Both made eagle on the 18th hole to force a playoff. Both made birdie on the first extra hole. Woods ended it with a 35-foot birdie putt on the next hole that was downhill and into the grain with about 6 feet of break. Equally memorable was what Els said when it was over:

“He's 24. He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he gets into his 40s.”

Woods turned 42 on Saturday. He's still not bigger than Jack Nicklaus when it comes to golf's ultimate yardstick, most majors won.

But he's still Tiger, and that means a lot. He commands more attention than major champions nearly half his age. 

The question wasn't much different a year ago when Woods returned to the Hero World Challenge after a 15-month recovery from two more back surgeries. More was made of his 24 birdies than finishing 15th against an 18-man field in an unofficial holiday event. When 2017 began, he lasted three rounds over two tournaments and was out again.

This time, he is returning from fusion surgery on his lower back. Most noticeable last month in the Bahamas was his power, and Woods said in a recent blog that he is hitting a full club longer than he was before. Adding to the higher level of optimism is the amount of golf he played leading up to his return – and not the score, but the company. Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Daniel Berger all played with Woods and liked what they saw.

The measure will be the full schedule that he wants to play, though he has not said what or where that would be. And if his health is as solid as he is letting on, golf will get a full dose of Woods in the majors for the first time since 2015.

Also, the Americans haven't won the Ryder Cup on European soil since 1993, two months after Jordan Spieth was born.

The Americans won the last Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, and they start 2018 with the top three players in the world ranking and five of the top eight. That means they will be favored on paper, and most American golf fans will be dismissive of Europe's chances.

The more pertinent question is who goes to Paris for the matches?

Much attention will be on Phil Mickelson, who hasn't missed a team competition since 1993 and is desperate to make the next one. He hasn't won since 2013 and was a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup.

The Americans had 14 players in their 20s win on the PGA Tour last year, and six of them were on the Presidents Cup team. Odds are not all of those six players will be in France, and U.S. captain Jim Furyk could have some tough choices for his selections.