Tiger Woods may be the most recognisable sportsman on the planet, but he’s rarely seen before he’s heard: the rapid pounding of footsteps, chattering camera lenses, jostling spectators and giddy cheers that have preceded every one of his swings for almost three decades. Ask any one of his fellow professionals and, no matter how far away on the course, they can always feel the weight of his presence.
So, on an idyllic morning in Ohio, Woods found himself at the centre of a curious contradiction, surrounded by virtual silence at Muirfield Village save for a few pesky photographers. “It’s a very different world out here,” he remarked. “Just a silent, different world.”
To fill that void, though, Woods did something even more unusual: he decided to do the talking himself. Where press conferences are usually defined by parameters of a few forced smiles and mundane questions over the health of his back, Woods admitted he held lasting concerns over the safety of playing at all, particularly after six players tested positive for Covid-19 during the PGA Tour’s restart. “I’m used to having so many people around me, or even touch me, going from green to tee. That’s something that I looked at and said, ‘I’m really not comfortable with that’,” he said. After all, once you’ve already achieved everything, there are few “risks” worth taking.
When pressed about the Black Lives Matter movement, a subject Woods has historically treated with platitudes or a barge pole - Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson was one of many to publicly scorn at Woods’ message of “utmost respect” for the police force during the protests that followed George Floyd’s death – the 44-year-old spoke with an unfamiliar candidness.
“I think change is fantastic,” Woods said. “As long as we make changes without hurting the innocent and unfortunately that has happened. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen in the future, but a movement and change is fantastic. That’s how society develops. That’s how we grow. That’s how we move forward. That’s how we have fairness. Unfortunately, we’ve lost innocent lives along the way and hopefully we don’t lose any more in the future as we move to a much better place socially.”
In a sense, while the pandemic has stripped away basic freedoms we all took for granted, it has also made us more reflective over what’s happening around us, be it locally, socially or politically. Even for the likes of Woods, who’s played just three competitive tournaments this year, that provides a certain sporting perspective.
Age is a restricting, but not necessarily debilitating factor on Woods’ career. The juggling of a severely limited schedule and iconic victory at the Masters last year proved that. There is a sageness about him, now, though. The feeling that he’s the retiring king of a younger golfing world, still wildly idolised, but not always present. Added to that is the lowered guard and glimpses of personality so often sheltered from view in the past, a vulnerability that brings him ever further away from the merciless competitor that used to strike fear.
During a practice round, Woods interrogated Bryson DeChambeau – the man who seems to be brutishly seizing control of that pedestal – with genuine curiosity, the type of which he’d never previously even needed to consider. The day prior, Woods laughed off Justin Thomas’s quip that he was “scared” to return to the course and reclaim his old throne. That position will always be reserved for him, but there’s no mistaking that today’s generation of players are respectfully carving their own path; one that needs to bypass him.
Woods will be paired with Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka this afternoon, the two figureheads of golf’s own restart, one where Woods is a bit-part player but for the truly big events. It is still, perhaps, the most innately talented trio of players in the world at this point in time, and one that will provoke excitement and comparisons galore. Woods insists the crackling pain in his spine has subdued once again, after a stiffening feeling at the Genesis Open in February where he finished last in the field, and Muirfield Village is friendly terrain, home to five of his record-equalling 82 PGA Tour wins.
For once, that hive of anticipation, excitement and noise that beats to Woods’ every step won’t echo around the course. But scrutiny over his longevity at the very highest level, like always, will still be in close pursuit – no matter how many times he proves it premature.