As late-career swings go, Tiger Woods’ slow gait through the golf schedule falls somewhere between classic rock bands wheezing through 50-year-old hits and Tom Brady leading teams to championships in his 40s. Woods fits in somewhere around Albert Pujols’ final season — nowhere near championship caliber, but still capable of fireworks.
Most of the notice Woods drew off the course this week at the Genesis Invitational came from a poorly timed joke. On the course, he made the cut on the number — an achievement in itself, since he hadn’t played a tournament in seven months and hadn’t made a cut since the Masters — rolled in a few long putts and outdrove many of his competitors. (That last stat was what led to the joke.) He also engaged in a bit of positive PR, checking the “Meet Tiger Woods” box on the sign of a young cancer survivor.
Tiger just walked over to this little girl behind 17 green and checked off that second item. Pretty damn cool. pic.twitter.com/Pp3Q6if7oE
— Dan Rapaport (@Daniel_Rapaport) February 18, 2023
Woods played well enough that he was only on the ninth hole Sunday while eventual winner Jon Rahm teed off in the final group. Given that he’s often been slamming his trunk and leaving the course before the leaders even hit their first shot — if he even made the weekend at all — that counts as progress.
Ever since Woods hit that hydrant over Thanksgiving 2009, the PGA Tour has had to reckon with what life after Woods would be like. Woods’ scandal is now the midpoint of his career, not — as it seemed at the time — the end of it. That means the tour has spent well over a decade trying to figure out how to wean itself off the firehose of content and interest that is Tiger Woods … and, at long last and just in time, there are positive signs that’s happening.
“There's a lot of new faces out here that are going to be the future of our tour,” Woods said after his Sunday round. “It's neat to see the turnover. It's neat to see the guys who are playing the best right now. You look at what Rahmbo has been doing, what Max [Homa] has been doing this year, to see them rise on a golf course like this, this is what it's all about.”
It’s still early, but “Full Swing,” the Netflix series spotlighting the 2022 golf season, has clicked with viewers in a way that, say, a random Midwest Insurance Company Open in March doesn’t. “Full Swing” spent much of the last week on Netflix’s Top 10 charts, and introduced casual viewers to a cast of non-Tiger characters that the far smaller subset of golf fans already know well: genial Tony Finau, gleeful weirdo Joel Dahmen, analytical Matt Fitzpatrick, hypercompetitive Justin Thomas.
That’s the way forward for golf, getting fans to connect with players on a personal level. Woods never invited fans that far into his world, but he didn’t need to — his entire public persona was built on “I’ll whip your ass and step over your body.” That’s all you need to show if you’re capable of throttling the field, but nobody’s capable of doing that on a regular basis now.
Well, almost no one. Three players have already held the No. 1 spot in the increasingly creaky Official World Golf Rankings this year, and they’re each an avatar for different styles of golf fandom: Rory McIlroy, the already-immortal icon; Scottie Scheffler, the humble golf bro; and Rahm, arguably the most intense competitor since Woods, with a similar winning trajectory to show for it.
Just like there were multiple “next Jordans” in the years after Michael, there have been several “next Tigers” in the post-hydrant era — McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, among others, have all won multiple majors in the time Woods has won one. Rahm, though, brings something different to the tee: a complete and dominating game, yes, but also a sense of the game’s history, a newfound love for fatherhood, plus an intensity that occasionally erupts as a volcanic temper. He’s both admirable and relatable, in other words.
Plus, he’s fulfilling the most basic requirement for drawing interest: He’s collecting trophies by the armload. No player since Johnny Miller in 1975 has won as many times this early in a season as Rahm’s three this year. He battled back from a rocky few Sunday holes to put away Max Homa at Riviera, a course at which Woods and Jack Nicklaus combined have exactly zero wins.
“I've been extremely disciplined my whole career, but right now I'm seeing the dividends of a lot of the hard work over the years,” Rahm said after his win that put him back at No. 1 in the rankings. “Obviously when you're playing good it's really fun and when you're winning tournaments, extremely fun.”
Numbers tell the story of golf, but numbers are yet to come on this current moment. There are some substantial hints out there that a Season 2 of “Full Swing” is in the early stages. Ratings numbers for Rahm’s run aren’t spectacular, but then golf ratings outside majors and Tiger Tournaments tend to be pretty rocky.
Still up in the air: how number 54 — in Roman numerals, LIV — is going to impact the tour this season. LIV’s second season tees off later this week, and the league no longer has the “that’s new, let’s check it out” factor going for it anymore. Will its innovations and new members — two of whom, Mito Pereira and Thomas Pieters, just defected from the tour in recent days — be enough to sustain interest in a second tour, or will LIV continue to divide golf? Again, it’s TBD.
Woods, if he had so desired, could have singlehandedly made LIV Golf a viable entity. The offer was there, regardless of how seriously Woods took it. Instead, he remained with the PGA Tour — more than that, he used the opportunity to remake the PGA Tour to his own desires. This past weekend — one of the tour’s new “elevated events,” featuring stronger fields and fatter purses — was proof of that. Woods laid down a path behind himself, and Rahm, at least, is charging up it. Will audiences follow?
Galleries will cheer Woods whenever and wherever he tees it up. Getting them to stick around for the rest of the day after he finishes, that’s the trick.