PACIFIC PALISADES, California — A couple hundred souls were on the range Tuesday afternoon at Riviera Country Club and the few who weren’t gathered around Tiger Woods were focused on the same thing as the 15-time major champion: finding enough to win this week’s Genesis Invitational.
Unlike those fellow grinders, Woods is six months removed from his last Tour start, more than two years from his last outside of a major. Through numerous surgeries, a near-fatal car wreck and a comparatively mundane case of plantar fasciitis, he has confessed to doubts about his ability to make it to the first tee, but never about his ability to win when he does. And while much has changed in golf, that much remains constant.
“I would not have put myself out here if I didn’t think I could beat these guys and win the event. That’s my mentality,” he said Tuesday.
Woods was 16 when he made his PGA Tour debut at Riviera in 1992. Three decades on, he’s now an oft-decorated, badly bruised and almost broken tournament host. Yet he refuses to contemplate that ceremonial role extending to inside the ropes. “I can’t wrap my mind around that as a competitor. If I’m playing in the event I’m going to try and beat you. I’m there to get a W, OK?” he said. “I don’t understand that making the cut’s a great thing. If I entered the event, it’s always to get a W. There will come a point in time when my body will not allow me to do that anymore, and it’s probably sooner rather than later, but wrapping my head around that transition and being the ambassador role and just trying to be out here with the guys, no, that’s not in my DNA.”
One benefit of being out of commission for much of the last couple years is that Woods has been spared the false bonhomie of the fist-bumping, tee-throwing LIV bros, who are determined to pretend that their Saudi-funded litigation should not impact relations with their self-funded defendants. But he can avoid them only so long. Until April 4, to be exact.
That’s the night of the traditional Champions Dinner at the Masters, where a half-dozen LIV players will have place settings. “I don’t know what that reaction’s going to be,” Woods said when asked about the dinner. “I know that some of our friendships have certainly taken a different path, but we’ll see when all that transpires. That is still a couple months away.”
Ample time for relations to mend, or for sores to fester.
The Champions Dinner is the most mannered moment at golf’s most genteel event, a place where Woods has been honored five times as the returning champion. He understands the intent of the evening. “We as a whole need to honor Scottie, Scottie’s the winner, it’s his dinner,” he insisted. But he clearly grasps that the broader context in which the dinner is being held cannot and will not be ignored.
There may be LIV players present on that Tuesday in Augusta with whom Woods (and other outspoken Masters champs, like Fred Couples) can be civil. Like Dustin Johnson, who took the money, resigned his Tour membership and walked away without friction. It will be tougher to keep his food down while seated across from former colleagues — as distinct from peers — who have accused him in court filings of conspiring illegally with the PGA Tour and dispatched subpoena servers in his direction.
“Realizing the nature of what has transpired and the people that have left, just where our situations are either legally, emotionally, there’s a lot there,” he said, leaving a distinct impression that if asked he might decline to pass the salt to Sergio or the silverware to Reed.
Outside of the majors, Woods won’t be much troubled by the outcasts. They’re not permitted to play PGA Tour events and he’s not playing many himself. “It’s going to be probably the majors and maybe a couple more,” he admitted. “Would I like to play more? Yes. Will it allow me to? I don’t know. I have to be realistic about that.”
For all the unknowns in Woods’ world these days, there remains no question where and with whom he will eat Tuesday evening of Masters week. What has changed is that there used to be no question as to whether he actually wanted to.