There are no ifs and buts on the golf course. Not when it is Tiger Woods. Never mind the state he’s in --- “injured, coming off an injury, playing well, or playing poorly”. If he’s in an event, it’s to win it.
There’s another, softer, aspect to the fierce competitor who feels ill-prepared if he cannot practice enough to win a tournament. Tiger will make it a point to meet Englishman Matthew Southgate, who in a stirring note at the start of the week mentioned how watching Tiger at the 2002 Open Championship in Muirfield went a long way in inspiring him.
Southgate had hoped the meeting, after getting out of bed early, would influence his golf too, little knowing that a battle with testicular cancer awaited him later on. Defying death, he’s back at the tee box and hopes the week at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic would be a stirring one, going toe-to-toe with Tiger.
Asked about the letter, Tiger fell silent, using the time to choose his words. He began, “It hits you deep.”
As an army officer’s son, Tiger had an insight into the way Southgate wrote the piece, and that was humbling.
“I know a lot of guys who have been wounded and who go back for more, even though they have been shot up pretty bad. Those, to me, are heroes. For someone to consider a golfer that way is enlightening.”
Not just his brush with wounded warriors, Tiger himself knows a thing or two about dealing with suffering; hence, the appreciation of Roger Federer’s triumph at the Australian Open. “No one wins Slams at his age,” he gushed. It wasn’t fluke. “He (Federer) rehabbed properly and you can tell how fast he’s moving. As you get older, you change your game and do things slightly differently, and he did that.”
Can he do it as well? “Yes, because I’m not going to hit balls like some of these guys out there.” Last week, Tiger watched Dustin Johnson’s tee shot carrying 340 yards. All he could was look at partner Jason Day and say, “We don’t have it.”
After the prolonged suffering, Tiger is adamant to “play away from pain”, even if it’s at the cost of looking unattractive. “I don’t care whether my swing looks classical, rhythmical or unorthodox. As long as I don’t feel that nerve pain (which kept him out of golf for 15 months); it’s not fun.”
Adapting his game as he gets on, Tiger is braced for changes elsewhere as well. From signing autographs for fans, it’s now obliging younger players at the range. “It’s a change of guard, means you’ve been around a long time. This is my 21st year on Tour and I’ve actually been out there just a little over half my life,” he laughed.
Happy to be back after three years, not much has changed at the Emirates Golf Club, barring the 18th. Tiger is hoping to get scoring from Thursday, but only after catching up on sleep. A call from his mother at 2am, asking how he was doing, left him complaining, “Mom, you do realise there is a nine-hour time difference?”