One person asking the question is Notah Begay III, a teammate of Woods’s at Stanford who is reporting on the Presidents Cup for Golf Channel and NBC. Begay, a former Tour winner and a recovering alcoholic, has been a sounding board, along with the swimmer Michael Phelps, for Woods since he sought professional help for mismanaging pain medications shortly after his arrest.
“We weren’t looking at trying to salvage a golf career,” Begay said. “We were trying to salvage someone’s life and future.”
For a superstar who comes across as bulletproof in the athletic arena, any show of human frailty can feel like a failure, which can lead to greater isolation. The American team member Charley Hoffman recognized that, which is why he said, sympathetically, of Woods, “I wouldn’t have wanted to be him when he was at the top, and I wouldn’t want to be him now.”
Woods spent a record 683 weeks as the world No. 1. The more success he achieved, the less contact he had with anyone outside his innermost circle. It was his coping mechanism, a way to remain whole when everybody wanted a piece of him.
In recent years, Woods has reached out to other players, including his longtime rival Phil Mickelson, who said, “He’s opened up over the last five or six years so we can really get to know him on a different level.”
The back injury set Woods back, isolating him from the community of players that might have provided support. The United States’ Presidents Cup captain, Steve Stricker, recognized this, which is why he reached out to Woods with the invitation to become an assistant captain, the same role he played at last year’s Ryder Cup.
Stricker intuited that Woods would get as much, if not more, from this week as the young golfers he was mentoring.
“This is a two-way street,” Stricker said.
Woods weathered bad stretches — weeks where his back hurt so much when he tried to drive a car or a cart that he did not think he would be able to be a part of this week’s proceedings. He obliquely referenced his misuse of pain medications, allowing that he faced challenges “not just for this golf tournament but for life going forward.
“But that’s all gone now,” he added, “which is fantastic.”
It would be wonderful if Woods were able to return to sound health, with a restored joy for the process of competitive golf. But anyone who sat in on the pre-event news conference featuring the assistant captains from both teams would have to conclude that Woods will never be allowed to revel in the ordinary; he will forever be dogged by the ghost of Tiger past.
Woods, ranked 1,142 in the world, was asked if he believed he could become No. 1 again if he regained the physical health that he enjoyed in his 20s.
With expectations like that, who needs pressure? Woods gave the answer that everyone of a certain age in the room was no doubt thinking.
“Is anybody in here who is in their 40s ever going to feel like they did in their 20s?” he said, adding, “I don’t know what 100 percent means after eight surgeries.”
The bar is so high for Woods, and after he pulled up lame in February, one and a half tournaments into a comeback from a 16-month layoff, he is probably wise to hedge his bets instead of doubling down on his future. He described himself as “very optimistic” about how he was progressing, but also gave himself an out.
Asked if he could imagine not returning to competitive golf, Woods said: “Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what my future holds.”
After 79 PGA Tour titles, including 14 majors, and at least eight surgeries, what more does Woods need from competitive golf?
“I think it’s fun,” he said. “You know, I’ve been competing in golf tournaments since I was, what, 4 years old. From pitch, putt and drive to playing major championships, it’s always been fun to me.”
The players on the American team here seem to be genuinely enjoying Woods’s company. Daniel Berger, a Presidents Cup rookie who is a member of the pod with which Woods is working, said, “There’s a presence when you’re around him. You can feel something in the air, and it’s just cool to be a part of that.”
Rickie Fowler, who lives near Woods in Florida and has practiced with him since he has resumed swinging a club, said: “He loves us so much, which to me is really cool and inspiring. Because for him to not be playing, as competitive as he is, and to be this involved and want us to feel as comfortable as we can be, and to want us to play as well as we possibly can, it means a lot, and it give us a lot of, I guess, positive vibes.”
For someone who spent nearly 20 years as golf’s leading man, Woods seems well cast in his supporting role.
“It’s interesting to me,” said Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst, “because he used to psychologically destroy people, and now he is there to psychologically boost people. And it’s possible that he’s going to be just as good at boosting the morale of people as he was at destroying it.”
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