It would seem that golf has put out its distress call yet again, and in hopes that comeback addict and human ATM Tiger Woods can save it once more from its more retrograde representatives. And Woods, in his own inimitable fashion, is signing up for the gig. That is, “As of right now, I feel like I am going to play,” is really just TigerCode for, I am so going to play. Why else would I sit here talking to you?
In all but saying the “yes” everyone craved, Woods is saying he is prepared for what is well known as the most treacherous walk in sports. His car accident 17 months ago, which basically reduced him to a flesh bag of disassembled body parts, has healed sufficiently that he is going to saddle up and make the sport forget that some of its most accomplished performers nearly decided that corporate America was doing them less good than the Saudi government could. Indeed, while Phil Mickelson, Woods’s most noteworthy bete noire, remains encased in radio silence after trying to convince his fellow golfers that what the game needed was a more murderously repressive regime than the PGA, Woods remained tactically silent knowing that he would eventually have to get up off his couch and save the whole damned thing again.
Or, as Brooks Koepka, one of the inheritors of Woods’s crown who hasn’t been able to hold it, said, “We need him, the game needs him, everybody needs him, the fans need him—all that stuff.”
His apparent return has stupefied those in his athletic circle of trust who remember the car accident 13 months ago that he said nearly cost him his right leg. But because he is a hard habit to break for a sport that has lost the ability to figure out what to do with itself every time he has left the tour, either for marital or medical reasons, the anticipation of the announcement has been sufficient to cause thousands of folks to follow him around over a nine-hole test run Monday with Fred Cousins and Justin Thomas.
It is generally agreed by his fellow victors that the hurdle he will face if now is walking Augusta National for four straight days, as though rogue hunters and enraged wildlife will pop from behind the trees at any moment in foul humor. But that’s always been the case; walking has been contraindicated for the species ever since the car was invented, and now it is the second-most arduous task a golfer faces next to dealing with the Saudis, who as the exile Mickelson so elegantly phrased it are “scary motherfuckers” to get involved with.
“We know they killed (Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” he told author Alan Shipnuck in a book on Lefty. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as (PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan) comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want it to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the Tour.”
So yeah. Yay golf. It got a look at its own greed, realized it wasn’t being nearly greedy enough, and decided to nuzzle up to nightmarish oppression for a closer look. And when that turned into the moral, ethical, and marketing disaster it became, Mickelson fled the jurisdiction with the same speed that his sponsors fled him, leaving the sport to turn its lonely and rapacious eyes to the one sure thing it can still bank on in these treacherous times.
That golf still needs him this desperately suggests that he set the sport a bar it cannot possibly clear without him, even in his current groundbound state. But it also shows not only that the next group of great golfers haven’t got the interpersonal skills to envelop the casual fan, but that many of them have surprisingly deficient corporate skills. It is a wonderment that some of their number aren’t thinking about a Ukraine Tour bankrolled by Vladimir Putin.
Sport, though, has been inching toward the unthinkable for the past year or so, trying to see how much money it takes to sell one’s soul. The Super League failed only because the English teams felt the heat of backlash, and the Chelsea auction and the World Cup in Qatar will be a constant reminder of how degrading the business of the beautiful game actually is. The NFL is just now (and once again) facing its racially repellent hiring practices and its even more appalling record on women, both in Washington, Houston and now Cleveland, pending developments. And golf—well, Mickelson was getting it right for two sentences before he declared that systematic murder as a tool of societal order isn’t enough of a deterrent to skip teaching Jay Monahan the first law of supply and demand.
Lionel Messi is aging out, though, and Tom Brady may have finally jumped the gerontological shark by coming back after a 40-day retirement (and we remember what religious deity did the 40-day thing before him don’t we, you metaphor junkies?). Golf, though, needs Tiger Woods yet again, and Woods needs it, albeit in a slightly healthier way. Then again, how could it not be healthier? All he has to do is walk the course and make people forget how close how many of his putative heirs came to walking with disaster, and how his greatest rival is now just a ghost runner whose flexible moral code revealed more about the sport as a whole than he intended.