Tiger, Tiger burning bright!

Welcome back, Tiger Woods. Thank you for coming back. We waited a long time for this.

Tiger Woods after winning the Tour Championship in Atlanta on September 23... a victory of significance after five years.   -  AFP

I started playing golf around the age of eight, which would mean sometime around 1995-96. By 1999-2000, I knew this was the sport for me.

I turned professional in the latter half of 2007, a little less than a year after being part of the silver medal-winning team at the Asian Games. By then, I was sure all I wanted to do was to play professional golf.

So, the two most crucial periods in my life as far as golf is concerned were 1999-2001 and then 2005-2009. No prizes for guessing as to who was the dominant name in both periods.

Those days, much of our conversation on the practice green would be on imagining a “Putt for the Claret Jug” or a “Putt for the Green Jacket.” There was also hardly any other name that was uttered or whispered when someone asked who we — not just me but all others of my generation — wanted to be. Only Tiger Woods!

While trying to pen my thoughts on what Tiger has meant for the sport, which is now my life, I had this urge to find out how many times he had won in these two crucial periods of his golfing career. Guess what — the period between 1999 and 2002 produced 31 titles and the period between 2005 to 2009, 35. That is 66 titles — including his 14 Majors — out of the 91 titles he has won on globally recognised professional Tours in his career. He is said to have won more than 100 around the world.

So, it is hard to imagine my golf without thinking about Tiger Woods and the influence he has had on many players like me.

When Tiger went away from the game intermittently from late 2009 onwards, with personal troubles and injuries, both his critics and fans at various times kept debating and discussing whether or not he could come back. He would play and win something and just when it seemed “he was back,” he would be gone with some other injury. He had four surgeries.

He did win five times in 2013 and was the Player of the Year on the PGA Tour, but that was almost like a teaser. That was the last time he won till this year’s Tour Championship.

Tiger Woods, Hero MotoCorp chairman Pawan Munjal and Anirban Lahiri at the 2015 Hero World Challenge at Albany, Bahamas. The Hero sponsorship brought Lahiri face to face with Tiger and the Indian golfer is really grateful for it.   -  PTI

 

The toughest part of his life came after 2013. It included both injuries and personal problems. It surely was a dark period for a man who had virtually ruled the game.

It is impossible to imagine how he must have felt. Few, if any, had reached the levels he had in our sport. To fall from there, not just in golf but generally, was indeed tough. It seemed the harder he tried, the more difficult it was becoming.

It was in early 2014 that I got the first opportunity to meet Tiger. I was still on the Asian Tour and I had played just one Major — the 2012 Open, where I had a hole-in-one at Royal Lytham. Ernie Els won that Open, coming back from something like six shots behind Adam Scott in terrible weather. Yes, there was Tiger, too. Lurking as usual and finishing tied third. However, I had never played with Tiger.

After years of idolising him while growing up, I got this absolutely unexpected opportunity and what’s more it included playing three holes with Tiger and that, too, at the Delhi Golf Club, where over the past three years I had won one Asian Tour title each year.

The opportunity came my way as Tiger had come to India on a personal invitation from Pawan Munjal of Hero MotoCorp, who is also my sponsor. Hero sponsors Tiger and his tournament, too, now.

It was surreal. Me playing with Tiger. Talking to him, while walking on the fairways and asking him questions that had been swimming in my head since childhood. Playing three holes with him and having a chance to talk golf with Tiger Woods was akin to letting me loose as a three-year-old in a candy shop.

The 2015 season was the first time I got to pay extensively on the PGA Tour and it was then that I got to see him closely. It was also the first time I would experience the real “roars from Tiger fans” in some part of the course whether at the Tour events or the Majors. The atmosphere was electric when he was around and the course had a different buzz. It was all about him. It seemed the public, the fans and the media, and even players in the field, would hardly notice the other 155 players.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since. Now, thanks to my senior and good friend Arjun Atwal, who is close to Tiger, and of course Munjal, I can say I know Tiger. It also sounds cool to say that the same company supports both Tiger and me!

After a very average 2015 and a heart-wrenching 2016 and 2017, when he reached the first tee just four times, it did seem the curtains had come down on a majestic career. There were whispers that he himself had given up, but Tiger never said it publicly.

He probably felt that he still had some wins in him. Yet, all he said was he would be happy to “just play.” But deep down, he has always wanted to only win. Yet, he was willing to walk slowly and get to that podium that once belonged to him.

Maybe the first glimmer of hope appeared at the 2017 Hero World Challenge, a tournament he himself hosts. That’s where he made his latest comeback. He played a full 72 holes and was tied ninth in a field of 18, but proclaimed he was “pain free.” But most importantly, he also added he would take time and not “hurry.”

We were ready to wait. In 2018, he was back. Slowly to start with; then it became a jog and finally he made a run at the last two Majors — the Open and the PGA. He played his way into the Ryder Cup team as captain Jim Furyk’s pick and then Tiger justified that faith with a dominating win at the ultimate tournament on our Tour — the Tour Championships.

Tiger, clad in his red shirt, tapping a winning putt and then holding his arms aloft in victory was a sight we all remembered well, but were not sure when or whether we would see it again. Now we could. And hopefully we will see it many more times in the coming years.

For all those who had heard of the Pied Piper, the final day of the Tour Championships was the time to see him in real life. On the 18th fairway and the green, it seemed the whole of East Lake was right there to see Tiger make that winning six-inch putt.

A little later I read somewhere that the final day rating over the NBC was the highest-rated PGA Tour telecast of 2018, excluding the Majors and then there were many more millions watching the action streamed live. That for you is the Tiger effect in golf and sport.

At the start of the year, Tiger had said that making the Tour Championship was one of his goals. As he neared that goal, his golf was getting to the levels he was known for.

His cards at the BMW were 62, 70, 66 and 65 and he continued that form with a 65 in the opening round at the Tour Championship. He closed the first round with a stunning eagle on the 18th. And we all knew this was the Tiger of the old and he was unstoppable. He was tied sixth at BMW and it was clear he was going for the No. 1 spot here.

Lahiri has idolised Woods for years.   -  AP

 

One of the hallmarks of Tiger has been that once he has his foot on the pedal, he seldom lets it off. He was in the shared lead for first two days and by the time the third round came he had separated himself from the rest by as much as three shots.

Most of us were certain he was back and ready for the win. Tiger has always been a great front-runner and has seldom lost when he has had the 54-hole lead.

A whole lot of solid players, including his playing partner Rory McIlroy and World No. 1 Justin Rose, were chasing him and waiting for him to slip and let them in through the door. Not this time as Tiger shut the door emphatically with a first-hole birdie on Sunday.

He stayed in charge and went as much as five shots clear at one stage. He was putting the ball exactly where he wanted. He did not waver and neither did he take any undue risks as he coasted to a comfortable two-shot win. What’s more, he was also second on the FedExCup final standings, with Rose narrowly finishing first.

Sure, the win was significant for Tiger, but even more significant was that the fans were back in massive numbers. Tiger it was who brought in more money, more focus and more visibility to our game and now his latest coming, call it second or third or whatever, could well make the game even bigger for the PGA Tour.

Welcome back, Tiger. Thank you for coming back. We waited a long time for this.

The author, an Indian golfer, plays in the PGA Tour.