Greg Cote

Tiger remains the best show in the game of golf, but for very different reasons now

Tiger Woods tees off on the 13th tee during the first round of the Honda Classic golf tournament on Thursday. Golfers wore a ribbon on their caps in memory of the students and faculty killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Tiger Woods tees off on the 13th tee during the first round of the Honda Classic golf tournament on Thursday. Golfers wore a ribbon on their caps in memory of the students and faculty killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. AP

Tiger Woods last won a major golf tournament almost 10 years ago — the 2008 U.S. Open — and has not won a PGA Tour event of any kind since since 2013.

Doesn’t matter.

He is presently the world’s 544th-ranked golfer.

Doesn’t matter.

He stands mid-pack in the 72-man field of the Honda Classic at par after Thursday’s windblown opening-round 70 at PGA National.

Doesn’t matter.

Woods’ continuing immense popularity is a sports phenomenon. At age 42, a decade past his best days and five years since he was last a real factor on tour, Tiger remains the greatest show in golf, the most interesting thing about the sport. Tournaments and TV ratings are lifted by his appearance. Galleries swell, following him across the course in a pilgrimage that seems almost religious in its fervor.

He used to generate that loyalty and buzz for his excellence, his dominance as he strode regally along the course, collecting 14 majors and once seemingly a cinch to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.

He does that now, still, at least partly because of his struggles, his perseverance and the unwritten ending to his story of triumph and fall. There is curiosity in his wake now.

Will Tiger ever be Tiger again?

The greatest has become the underdog, and there is something riveting in it as we watch one of the premier athletes ever, in any sport, fighting from the periphery, trying to be relevant again.

Thursday’s 70 felt like a small victory to Woods, on a tough day when that score had him only two shots off the leaderboard.

“My best ball-striking day,” Woods called it afterward, in the midst of a comeback inching forward by degrees. “I was pleased how I hit it. I felt good. Felt very solid. Felt very comfortable.”

Tiger wore a maroon and silver #MSDStrong ribbon on his cap as did many of the golfers, in a tribute to the 17 students and faculty killed at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in last week’s mass shooting.

He is from the area. Lives 20 minutes north of the course on Jupiter Island.

“It’s just a shame what people are doing now,” he said of the tragedy. “The countless lives we’ve lost for no reason at all.”

Fans of Tiger Woods wait to cross after watching Woods tee off on the 16th hole during the first round of the Honda Classic golf tournament on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Wilfredo Lee AP

Many of Woods’ friends and neighbors were among his gallery Thursday, including “some of my kids’ soccer parents.”

The thing is, we all feel like we know this man. We have watched him grow up. Woods first played the Honda Classic in 1993 as a 17-year-old amateur. The fandom is handed down.

“Tiger!” the voices call out all over the course, some of those voices too young to recall when he was the king of golf.

A residence along the course has a giant sign up that reads, THIS HOUSE LOVES YOU TIGER. WELCOME BACK.

The Honda Classic is elevated on the South Florida landscape since the departure of the PGA Tour from Doral after more than 50 years leaves this as our annual golf jewel. The Honda also is elevated because Woods has made it a step in his comeback.

This latest iteration in the Tiger Woods saga finds an affable, more relaxed man. No wonder. He is confident in his physical self, not hurting, for the first time in about five years.

“I’m not in pain. I’m a lot happier,” he says. “It was a long period of time where I was really struggling.”

This week means Woods is playing in back-to-back PGA Tour events for the first time since 2015, though he missed the cut last week. He is not back fully, his comeback a work in progress.

Everything is geared to April, to the Masters. It is the year’s first major. Everything before that is a glorified tuneup, a plan to get to Augusta, Georgia, with his game purring again, with a shot at that long elusive 15th major.

Sonny and Dottie Munoz cheer for Tiger Woods as he plays near their home along the 13th fairway during the Pro-Am for the Honda Classic golf tournament, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Joe Cavaretta AP

“I miss the rush of competing for a green jacket,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was 19. I have been physically debilitated for a long time, but this year’s different. I’m trying to get my game solid for April. I’m looking forward to it.”

Woods was the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer for a record 683 total weeks, the equivalent of about 13 years. But the game has been a struggle for the master since back surgeries in 2014 and ’15 caused him to miss the entire 2016 season. The comeback since has been gradual, starts and stops. Now, there are encouraging signs that Tiger is slowly becoming Tiger again. But will Tiger at 42, even healthy, be able to be the best again? To win another major?

It’s the finding out that rivets attention.

“I’m learning how to play tournament golf again. I’m starting to get that feeling again,” he said. “I’m starting to get in that flow again. I missed that, and it’s becoming familiar again.”

Also familiar, because it never left him, is the adoration of his believers.

As if on cue, as his post-round media session wrapped up, a young voice rose in the air like helium.

“We love you Tiger!”

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