Any mention of golf during the week of Thanksgiving used to be about the Skins Game.
Now it’s hard not to think about Tiger Woods.
It was five years ago this week when his private life began to unravel. It still seems surreal to recall the breaking news scrolling along the bottom of the television that Woods had been ”seriously injured” in a car accident outside his home. The injury wasn’t that serious. He was treated and released.
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And while the tree his SUV struck did far more damage, it was the fire hydrant he first ran over that became a symbol of the before-and-after nature of his career.
There is a fascination with anniversaries. Is five years any more meaningful than four or six? Still, it seems appropriate to raise one question as Woods prepares to return to competition next week after another long layoff.
Is this where you thought he would be five years later?
He has gone through two swing coaches. He has changed caddies. He has gone from married with children to being a single dad. He still has 14 majors. And next week at the Hero World Challenge will his fifth comeback from injury.
So much has changed, except for the expectations.
They’re just as high.
And that’s why the last five years – particularly the last one – would seem to be a lost cause.
About this time a year ago, Woods was on the cusp of winning his World Challenge until Zach Johnson holed out from the drop zone for par on the 18th hole and went on to beat him in a playoff. That stuff used to only happen to Greg Norman.
No problem. Woods was coming off another five-win season on the PGA Tour that only he can make look routine. He was PGA Tour player of the year for the 11th time, won the money title for the 10th time and captured the Vardon Trophy for the ninth time.
But when he began this year as the defending champion at Torrey Pines, no one could have imagined what would follow.
Woods has started only eight tournaments this year and finished only three of them. For the first time in his career, he did not register a top 10. There were two WDs (withdraws), two MCs (missed cuts) and one MDF (54-hole cut).
He effectively was MIA.
Recurring back pain led to surgery in March, which forced him to sit out three months and miss two majors. When he returned (earlier than he should have), he looked more like an old Woods than the Woods of old. And then he shut it down after the PGA Championship to get stronger.
Is he as good as 25-year-old Rory McIlroy? No. For starters, Woods turns 39 next month.
Can he challenge him?
Considering the last five years as a whole, it might be too early to rule him out.
-McIlroy with 13 wins worldwide is the only player to have won more than Woods (nine) over the last five years. Adam Scott, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood also have nine wins around the world.
-Woods still has the highest winning percentage (12 percent) of anyone in the last five years.
-In the last five years, Woods has been at No. 1 in the world longer (60 weeks) than the other five players who have taken turns at the top of the ranking, and he is the only player to be No. 1 for a continuous year.
It’s not all that dire.
Far more difficult to measure is how much Woods has been affected physically and emotionally since the crisis in his personal life unfolded Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.
He doesn’t seem to make as many big putts. But that started before he hit the fire hydrant. Otherwise, he would have won the PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
He has lost precious time because of his Achilles tendon and his left knee, and more recently his back. Those injuries were a matter of time.
The biggest change involves his corporate deals. Woods lost or did not renew sponsorship deals with Accenture, AT&T, Gillette, Gatorade, Tag Heuer and EA Sports. He has replaced them with Rolex, a Japanese heat rub, FUSE and and now Muscle Pharm. Nike remains his biggest sponsor, and Woods has made appearances in commercials and TV shows with McIlroy. There was a time when Woods didn’t share his Nike stage with anyone.
His performance in the majors is the most glaring difference, mainly because that always has been his ultimate measure.
In the 16 majors he has played since 2010, Woods has only five top-five finishes, and he has not been a serious factor in the final hour of any of them. He has not broken 70 in the final round of a major since the Masters in 2011.
He remains stuck on 14 majors dating to the 2008 U.S. Open. He is still four short of catching Jack Nicklaus.
The week after Thanksgiving, Woods gets back to work. And that leads to another relevant question.