There was a reason why New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling rooted for Joe Louis toward the tail end of the heavyweight’s career. With Louis still in contention, “I had a link with an era when we were both a lot younger,” he wrote in 1951. “Only the great champions give their fellow citizens time to feel that way about them.” In short, if Louis were still winning, Liebling couldn’t be that old.
There are many reasons that the sports world loves Tiger Woods, but his ability to create the feeling Liebling described is one of them. Woods’s comeback weekend ended with a second-place finish at the Valspar Championship, but what made the tournament special wasn’t his finish or the fact that the nation is now aware there is a Valspar Championship. The most exciting thing about seeing Woods compete was the idea that the spectacle wasn’t necessarily a one-off; it could happen again, over and over, maybe even next weekend. The Tiger Woods experience this weekend was exactly like the one a decade ago: He took over a random Sunday, kept everyone in front of a TV texting their friends about whether they’d just seen that iron shot in a tournament they were only vaguely aware of before this year, and got everyone hankering to go to the golf range and hit some balls afterward. No one actually cares that Woods is projected to rank 148th in the world golf ranking this week. No one cares he ranks 199th on the tour in driving accuracy. There are all sorts of little bits of reality we can forget about for now. All anyone cares about at the moment is that seeing Tiger Woods like this was awesome.
There was no guarantee this would ever happen again—Woods last won a tournament in 2013 and has rarely looked comfortable on a golf course since. To make things worse, he had back surgery last April.
Golf has, simultaneously, the best and worst aging curve in sports. You never really retire or get retired, as one does in nearly every other sport. You graduate to the senior tour and play the same majors at 65 as you did at 25. There’s never a defined stopping point or a natural break between being elite, the start of your decline, and complete irrelevance to the tour. Woods could have drifted around the sport for another 30 years, never making another run and looking like a shell of his former self. There was a chance Woods never took over another random Sunday. He didn’t have to nail a 44-foot putt to draw within one stroke on 17, but he did. Last September Woods floated the idea that he’d never return to competitive golf. But now, in an almost impossibly quick turnaround, pundits are talking about which major Woods is best suited to win this year (he hasn’t won one since 2008) and Woods getting a Ryder Cup spot (injuries forced him into vice captainship in 2016). The speculation that Woods will dominate next week at Bay Hill, where he’s won eight times, is already in overdrive. This rules.
Woods’s mere presence on the leaderboard turns likable golfers like Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker into anonymous movie villains getting in the way of the hero. Paul Casey, who seems like a great guy, became, for an hour, my least favorite person on earth. On Saturday, Fox golf analyst Shane Bacon realized that the entire world was rooting against the leader at the time, the young Canadian Corey Conners, and pointed out that Connors was “battling for a life-changing moment that he may never have again.” It’s a great point. However, my counterargument is: TIGEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRR.
It’s been easy to forget what Tiger Woods does to a golf tournament. The weekend was in some ways unmistakably different from the Tigerless tour: The Valspar tallied the highest-rated round-three coverage of a PGA Tour event in nearly 12 years, and ratings were up 181 percent from a year ago. But, there were some less-obvious differences, too: I love watching golf and want the coverage to show as many swings as possible and even I, at times, was groaning when anyone other than Woods was on my television. This impulse is a bit unfair to the other golfers. Casey had a historically good putting day, needing just 21 putts to finish his Sunday round. Patrick Reed pulled off some of the weirdest shots I’ve seen lately to grind out a second-place tie with Woods. Sergio Garcia was charging all day. But again, having considered all of that: TIGEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRR.
In many ways, when he’s on, Woods is the sport. When he started, he had pleated pants and baggy polos and didn’t seem totally ridiculous. He’s endured so long that the same fans that cheered him in a dial-up world can’t help but Snapchat pictures of him on the green. He’ll probably be in contention when Elon Musk’s Mars missions come into focus and then, he’ll take over Sundays there too. He has defined the sport for so long that golfer Ben Crane said that Woods is “facing competition that he literally created” by being popular enough to get a generation of youth out of team sports and into golf.
So now what? There’s an argument to be made that the Valspar was a great place for Woods to have this sort of comeback because as, er, Norm Macdonald pointed out, he could win without using his driver all the time. And there’s reason to hope for success in the near future: He’s owned Bay Hill. Shinnecock, the site of June’s U.S. Open, seems like a place where Woods could compete with his current game. But with a 42-year-old with a severe injury history, there are a lot of unknowns: Will he improve off the tee? Will his surgically repaired back hold up? That seemed a major question on the back nine, when Woods looked uncomfortable after some swings or when he leaned down to mark the ball. My colleague Megan Schuster put it better than I could when she referred to Woods as “grimacey.” But those questions will be answered in the weeks and months ahead. Sunday was for pumping your fist as Tiger charged up the leaderboard and sighing when he left his putts short in the final round. Woods being two back for most of the afternoon felt dull at points even though, as Jason Sobel pointed out, most golf fans would have killed for that scenario at the beginning of the week.
In the last few years, we’ve learned how the sports world reacts to various degrees of Tiger runs. A nice drive at a random tournament in the Bahamas in the winter gets a roar, a second place at the Valspar gets an explosion. If Woods ever competes on Sunday at a major, let alone Augusta, the entire country will look like post–Super Bowl Philadelphia.
Maybe that will never happen, but what we learned on Sunday is that anything could happen. And that’s all that’s needed right now.