Tiger Woods

Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports

Baffoe: Golf Was Better With Sunday Tiger

Tiger Woods evoked new emotions in fans as he contended again.

Tim Baffoe
March 12, 2018 - 9:13 am

By Tim Baffoe--

(670 The Score) No offense to Paul Casey, but in a few weeks hardly anyone but his loved ones will remember his win at the Valspar Championship on Sunday.

Such is the case for most PGA tournaments that aren’t majors. Justin Rose will be one of but a few down the line who remembers his own anticlimactic final back nine. Patrick Reed’s long putt on 18 that got to a dozen feet short of the hole before rolling all the way back to him will make for some easy clickbait pieces, but quirks like that happen weekly. Most viewers weren’t tuning in for any of those guys.

None other than Tiger Woods brought the eyes to a March Sunday golf show, as Woods was in contention for the first time in forever. Woods entered Sunday one shot off the lead, and suddenly golf was appointment television more than a week before spring hatched.

Golf is just more interesting when Woods is involved playing at a high level. This was always the case years ago when he wasn’t just one of the best golfers on Tour but arguably the best pro athlete in the world at his respective sport. There was the eponymous video game and sports drink, him single-handedly shaping the golf wing of Nike. Woods was golf for more than a decade beginning in the late 1990s, more than any one person “was” any other sport in that duration.

Sunday was quite different, though. Woods being “back” was part sentimentality, we being reinvigorated by the old awe of watching him in the hunt while being able to push into the backs of our minds our own realizations of mortality when we watch the deterioration of any great athlete’s career. It was also the pathos of storybook career trajectory, an athlete reaching the pinnacle of his profession only to canyon from a body that let him down and personal choices that let so many of his fans down.

Sports accommodates redemption. Its wheels are greased by stories of overcoming adversity, even when it’s self-created. A superhuman like Woods becoming very human is the stuff of literary tragedy, and his work to return to competitive form is that of celluloid. The book of Tiger Woods feels much older than his mere 42 years. The intrigue that followed him once again wasn’t fascination at his skill but at the parabola he’s become at the moment.

“Everyone loves a comeback story, and the underdog, and Tiger became the underdog,” former pro and Woods friend Notah Begay III said. “Just two months ago he was ranked outside the top one thousand and was overcoming multiple back surgeries and sort of was the punch line on late-night comedy because of everything that had gone on. But through all the trials and tribulations, he nonetheless has found a way to persevere and get back to a level of performance that is literally unbelievable.”

It wasn’t just the viewers at home who were tuning in to a tournament that otherwise would've taken a back seat to the NCAA Tournament selection discussion and the stimulation that is Chicago Bulls basketball. Woods in his first PGA appearance at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course and as actual competitive brought out a bigger gallery, too. Tournament director Tracy West estimated that the weekend crowds swelled from last year.

"We had 112,000 people last year, and it's going be at least 140,000, maybe 150,000," West said. "The crowds are larger. I know they were up 40 percent on Thursday from last year."

The Tiger effect is still a thing, just different now. We’re not tuning in to see how he will dominate the field this time around. Domination is gone from his game forever thanks to fusion surgery on his back.

“This is uncharted territory,” Woods said after three rounds. “No one has ever had a lower lumbar fusion where I had it and come out here and played.

“I didn’t want to go there. That was last-case resort and ended up being the only option I had left. We exhausted all the non-surgical options. My disc was still intact, so we’re trying to save the disc and I just never know with the future.”

The future involves not just working through a spinal fusion but a continued repair of reputation that audiences are more than willing to allow. When Woods sunk a 44-foot putt on the 17th green to make Casey sweat in the clubhouse, there was a “wow” feeling. But not like “Oh, he did it again” of yore, because that was a different Woods who isn't coming back. It was more like, “He might actually do it.” This is a different person with the same name bringing out different sports emotions in the onlooker. Can this rebuilt man win at the game that made him and that he made more exciting years ago? The pursuit of the answer makes for great theater.

Woods ended the tournament one shot behind Casey. It was his first top five finish in 1,659 days.

Yet it seems like something much more positive than second place happened Sunday. Watching Woods go from hole to hole, neither appearing the red-shirted predator of old nor haplessly laboring in recent years, it was watching someone achieve something impressive while not getting a trophy.

And watching golf itself was better for it.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.