(CNN) — His intense stare and the fierce will to win have seen him likened to a gladiator, but will Tiger Woods’ comeback gets the thumbs up from the jury?
Woods returns from a year out this week at his own Hero World Challenge, a $3.5 million invitational event hosted by his foundation.
The 40-year-old has not played competitive golf since August 2015 to recuperate from multiple back surgeries. He pulled out of a proposed return in California in October, saying his game was “vulnerable and not where it needs to be,” but seems set to tee off in the Bahamas Thursday.
“My own personal thinking is you can never discount a gladiator like Tiger Woods because the level of desire is immense, and the level of intensity with which he pursued his craft has never been seen before,” says Shane O’Donoghue, host of CNN’s Living Golf show.
But what will a “successful comeback” look like?
Is it the Woods of 2000-2001 when he held all four majors at the same time? Is it the Jack Nicklaus major-record-chasing Woods, refreshed and ready to add to 14 major titles? Is it a former great looking for one last hurrah in the major sphere? One more PGA Tour title? A serial contender? Not missing the cut every week?
Some of the game’s big names have effectively written off Woods.
Greg Norman says the mind of a 40-year-old is still willing but the body doesn’t allow you to compete with 20-somethings, while Nick Faldo believes “everything is stacking up against him, physically and mentally.”
“There are so many valid arguments as to why it won’t work for him because of all the injuries and the setbacks,” O’Donoghue adds. “It’s almost impossible to think he can get back to that level he was at.”
For much of his career Woods’ stated goal has been to eclipse Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major titles. He has been stuck on 14 since 2008, derailed by scandal, injury and swing tinkering.
Recently, he seemed to admit that goal was over, only to add a cryptic caveat.
Asked in a TV interview whether he still thinks he will get to 18 majors, Woods replied: “To be honest with you, no.”
But then asked if he had accepted that, Woods laughed and said: “I’ve accepted I’m going to get more.”
Nicklaus won his 16th and 17th majors in the year he was 40. Six years later, motivated by a press cutting saying he was finished, he clinched a remarkable sixth and final Masters title in a last act of defiance.
Nicklaus was largely free of the intrigue, interest and injuries that have dogged Woods’s career.
But the youngsters in Nicklaus’ day were not the athletes they are now, and the game not dominated by power. Nicklaus’ longevity, though, does suggest Woods has time yet.
“Gladiator is a description I like when it comes to Tiger Woods,” O’Donoghue says.
“I’ll never forget seeing him up close in the heat of the battle at places like Augusta. He looked like a prize fighter. You could see a bead of sweat dripping down his brow, and just the physical stature of the guy, he looked like someone who was in the pro fight game.
“Guys who operate at that level have a level of desire most people have no idea about. To be an elite golfer you have to live for the moment and the shot. You have to want it almost more than life itself.
“My thing about Tiger Woods is, if he’s coming back he doesn’t want to settle for second best.”
Woods’ injuries over the years have been legion.
He has had four operations on his left knee and suffered numerous Achilles, neck and elbow problems as well as the ongoing back ailment, which prompted a first operation for a pinched nerve in March 2014. Further back surgeries occurred in September and October 2015.
Much of the bodily breakdown was attributed to a punishing physical training regime, not just to dominate golf, but as part of his obsession with U.S. Navy Seals.
He won his last major, the 2008 US Open with a broken leg. Since 2013 he has missed six of the 12 majors through injury and missed the cut in four more.
His ongoing fitness, then, will be a primary cause for debate.
He’ll be armed with a new swing to ease his back, and probably new clubs after long-time sponsor Nike announced it was leaving the golf equipment business.
‘Look in his eye’
Woods’ swing changes have formed an integral part of his story.
He won eight majors with coach Butch Harmon between 1997-2002 and six under Hank Haney between 2005-2008. Haney quit in May 2010 but Woods has been unable to add to his major haul with successors Sean Foley and Chris Como.
The swing alterations, made by different coaches with different philosophies, were partly to cope with an ailing body, partly due to Woods’ constant striving for perfection, but arguably have muddied the waters.
Assuming he is fit for now and in the months ahead, it is the competitiveness that will constitute how successful his comeback is, according to O’Donoghue.
“I’m not looking for beautiful swings, I don’t want to over analyze technique or anything like that, I want to see the competitor,” he says. “That will be good enough for me to get this thing kick-started in what could be the last chapter or last few chapters of his playing career.
“I don’t think instant wins are the absolute necessity. He just needs to compete and be in contention. I just want to see the look in his eye. It’s an instant give away, that intensity.”
Woods is also chasing Sam Snead’s record of 82 PGA Tour wins. He sits second on the all-time list with 79.
Haney doesn’t rule out more wins — “he’s still Tiger Woods” — but says a run at Nicklaus will be “very, very, very difficult.”
Woods’ last victory came in 2013 when he won five times — often in scintillating fashion — to climb back to the top of the world rankings after languishing at 128th two years before following the fallout of his 2009 scandal.
He might be ranked No. 861 now, but Woods was still on top as recently as May 2014 following another 60 weeks as No. 1 — a position he has held for a record 683 weeks in total.
With three career grand slams — winning all four of the year’s majors at some stage in a career — Woods has achieved virtually everything there is to achieve in golf.
“He has nothing to prove to anyone,” O’Donoghue says. “It’s really his battle with himself. I believe he is 100% positive he can do something special and show to everyone the gladiator continues to exist.
“He’d prove all his doubters wrong, but I don’t think that’s what motivates him. I think he wants to prove things to himself.”
Should Woods’ fitness wane, or his former stardust fail to materialize this season, the consensus suggests he will walk away from the game, rather than cut a dejected figure trying to recapture former glories.
Woods recently re-branded his various businesses under the TGR banner, a move he describes on his website as “Chapter 2: my evolution as a competitor off the course.”
Interviews in his year off have also suggested he acknowledges the end is in sight. But until it’s official, the world will be watching transfixed.
“I refuse to write him off until he is absolutely brought out on a stretcher and a doctor says it’s all over and there’s no way back,” O’Donoghue concludes.