CLEVELAND: It’s good for golf to have Tiger back

By RICK CLEVELAND,

You may love him. Millions of golf fans do adore Tiger Woods, the most gifted if not the most accomplished golfer in history. (Jack Nicklaus, 18 majors to Tiger's 14, remains the most accomplished in my mind.)

You may pull against Tiger. Many do, mostly because of his well-publicized character issues.

But, adore him or dislike him, what you can't argue is this: Professional golf becomes far more compelling, far more enjoyable when Tiger Woods is playing.

Last weekend serves a perfect example. Woods, who eventually would finish tied for second, turned something called the Valspar Championship into a dramatic, must-see event. Crowds were up over 40 percent over last year at Valspar. TV ratings for a non-major golf tournament were the highest in 12 years. Millions more watched because Tiger was in the hunt.

This week, he plays again at Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando where he has won eight times before. No telling how many will watch that. And, oh my, won't The Masters, the first week of April, be far, far more interesting if Tiger is wearing his trademark red and in the hunt on Sunday?

The answer: a resounding yes.

Some facts for those who don't closely follow the PGA Tour. Woods, who turned 42 in December, has won 79 times on the PGA Tour, second only to Sam Snead. He first ascended to No. 1 in the world golf rankings in June of 1997 and, amazingly, held that ranking for most of the next 20 years. But, he has not won since the 2013 World Golf Classic-Bridgestone Invitational, going on five years ago.

Since then, he has undergone four back surgeries, the last a spinal fusion in April of last year. In 2017, he dropped out of the top 1,000 in the world golf ratings for the first time.

With his recent return to competitiveness, people ask: Can he win another major? Can he become No. 1 again? Does he have a chance to catch Nicklaus and his 18 majors?

My guesses, in order: Yes, probably not, and I'd be shocked. You play golf at the level Tiger did this last weekend, you definitely can win another major especially when you have shown so many times before you have what it takes. But, no, there are just too many remarkable golfers out there for Tiger to ever become No. 1 again. Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Hidecki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia and Jason Day aren't going anywhere any time soon.

How deep is the well of guys Woods would have to pass to become No. 1? Paul Casey, who won Valspar, is No. 12. Rory McIlroy is now ranked No. 13. Henrik Stenson is 15th. Phil Mickelson is 18th. Bubba Watson is 38th. Listen: Adam Scott, the guy who last replaced Woods as the world's No 1 golfer, now ranks No. 56. Fifty-sixth.

There's no doubt Tiger Woods, himself, was the inspiration that has caused golf's current glut of talent Now, it seems nearly every golfer comes to the first tee straight from the gym ready to wallop the ball 330 yards. That wasn't the case before Tiger, who at 42 still looks like an NFL free safety in his form-fitting shirts. Nearly all Tour golfers are fit. Nearly all can hit it nearly as far, if not farther, than Tiger. They aren't afraid, much less intimidated.

And then there is his back. As good as the competition is, Tiger's health issues – his back in particular – are what I believe will keep him from catching, much less passing, Nicklaus.

He says he is fully recovered now from the fusion surgery of last April. And he is certainly swinging like it. But I just don't believe his back can stand up to the constant torque produced by his powerful, spine-twisting, all-out swings. Sunday, he tried to hit a 3-wood second shot into the green on a long, uphill, 600-yard plus par 5. There's one word to describe his swing on that shot: violent. He went at it with everything he had. I winced.

Maybe his back, already surgically mended four times, can hold to that ridiculous amount of torque at age 42. I doubt it.

I hope it does. Because there's no doubt about this: Golf is just more fun when Tiger Woods is playing. At his best, there's never been anyone, including Nicklaus, who was better.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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