If Tiger Woods comes back, he will not just be a different golfer, but a different person

Do not go gently into that good night, Tiger

The great DJ Carey inadvertently explained the contradiction in our feelings about Tiger Woods, when he denied us the pleasure (or morbid curiosity) of watching him make his comeback in this week’s Safeway Open.

“It doesn’t matter if you are an ageing athlete in a running sport like my own or a golfer,” Carey said. “You are still being judged by the glory days, and it can’t be done."

“Psychology is so big in sport now that he will be trying to get his all round game right before he comes back. And he probably has to come back as a different person, as well as a different golfer.”

Those who dreamed of seeing the old Tiger resurrected from the realm of the living dead (the land of yips, mental scars, and atrophied discs) had their hopes dashed by media release that was fascinating for the sheer emotiveness of the language.

Words and phrases such as “soul searching”, “honest reflection” and “vulnerable” were never part of the Woods lexicon before he stood in front of that blue velvet curtain and suffered the mortification of being forced to apologise to the world for his extra-marital affairs.

He spoke of the “honour” of being involved in the Ryder Cup, and the long hours of practice he had been putting in both for the trip to California and the subsequent jaunt to Turkey for the Turkish Airlines Open.

The fact that he didn’t feel ready is being interpreted as stage fright, but the closing phrase — “I’m close, and I won't stop until I get there” — was full of the typical Woods defiance his fans love.

At the age of 40 however, anyone connected with the game knows that the jig is all but up for Tiger.

Few golfers get more than 20 years at the top and while Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Pádraig Harrington refuse, as Dylan Thomas said, to “go gentle into that good night,” these are the end days for that golden generation.

Mickelson’s gob-smacking final round duel with Henrik Stenson for The Open, his toe to toe singles slugfest with Sergio Garcia at Hazeltine and his defiant cry (echoed by Harrington) that he wants to play in the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, are signs that he hasn’t yet reached that place where Woods finds himself today.

Phil can still hit it off the planet and remain relevant thanks to his mesmeric short game. Woods, it appears, is battling the yips in that department and has lost his ability to overpower golf courses as he did in his pomp. It’s difficult to see how he can make up for lost time and compete with a new generation of physically or mentally gifted specimens like Rory McIlroy, Jason Day or Jordan Spieth.

The New York Times’ Karen Crouse hit the nail on the head when she wrote of Woods’ description of his game as “vulnerable.”

“His candid assessment called to mind a line from I Said Yes to Everything, the memoir of the Academy Award-winning actress Lee Grant. In it, she wrote, ‘The problem when you are a star, when the money rests on you as an actor, is that your freedom to fail is gone.’”

Rory McIlroy was constantly compared to Woods when he first arrived in the US, but Woods’ biggest challenge has not been the comparisons with Jack Nicklaus or Michael Jordan, they have been the comparisons with himself.

As Crouse pointed out, “If he compares his shots now with his shots then, Woods is never going to feel ready.”

DJ Carey knows how that feels, and while Woods’ aura is still strong, it remains to be seen if he could get close enough to the top of a leaderboard for that to be a factor.

“I'm not bragging about myself, but the fear of me getting a goal, or the fear of Brian O’Driscoll getting 20 yards of space in rugby, was a disaster for the opposition,” Carey said last week. “Knowing that Tiger is on the prowl and has just birdied three of the last four holes and is now only three behind, that would have to make people nervous, no matter who they are.

“The problem now is that the modern sportsman has no fear. The modern guy doesn’t fear Henry Shefflin. They have more self-belief, and are prepared better psychologically. And they make fewer mistakes.”

Tiger knows that too. Whether he can overcome all odds and find a way to become relevant again as a player looks highly unlikely right now.

Having been criticised for years for his detachment —the dead-eyed shark menace or ninja assassin-like cool he displayed in his prime— it might be nice to see something of the real Woods for a few years. But do we really want to see our heroes divested of their powers?

The game might not need Tiger, but he might still need the game, if only to get some closure and maybe, just maybe, to give us one last taste of his golfing menace.