Sport

BURNING BRIGHT

Tiger Woods back on course and critically active at centre of golf’s decision-making

Tiger Woods back on course and critically active at centre of golf’s decision-making
Tiger Woods speaks to the media during a pro-am for the PNC Championship at Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Tiger Woods is widely credited with boosting golf’s popularity and wealth for more than two decades. Now he’s a central figure in the sport’s latest revolution.

There are many entities vying to be the voice of golf during a tumultuous time in the sport, but none are as important as Tiger Woods’s, even if he is no longer the force he once was on course.

Woods, 47, will make his first tournament appearance since the Masters in April at this week’s limited 48-man field Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas.

Woods revealed his, and the player’s frustration at the state of the sport in the midst of a possible merger between Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and the PGA Tour.

So, naturally, the golfing world’s ears twitched when Woods addressed the media for the first time in months to give his take on golf’s civil war and possible truce. 

The fact that he made his comments at a ‘tournament’ that is little more than an exhibition event at the end of the season, did detract from them slightly.

There is a certain irony to Woods’ return at this type of tournament considering his voice is important to smoothing the divide in the game caused by the emergence of LIV Golf — which is really just a series of glorified exhibition events.

The idea of competition, jeopardy and the concept of winning and losing ‘meaningful’ events is something Woods, and the golf establishment is trying to protect.

The reality though is that golf and players such as Woods and many others have been happy to take undeclared ‘appearance fees’ to turn up at certain tournaments on the regular tours. Yes, those tournaments had a halfway cut and most were established on the PGA Tour or DP World Tour calendars, but it’s a fine line when you’re being paid to tee it up.

LIV Golf just took that concept a little further, openly paying players millions to play, and piling on millions more in prize money at tournaments with limited fields and no halfway cut. As sport, it was, and is, dull. As business, it’s brilliant if you’re a decent golfer on LIV’s payroll.

With the PIF’s war chest of $700-billion for various sports entities including Newcastle United, LIV Golf is going nowhere if the Saudis retain the interest to continue to fund it.

Relatively speaking, the few billion dollars they’ve spent so far is small change. They can do this for years if they want, which is why the PGA Tour did an astonishing about-turn and negotiated with the PIF about a merger. That news broke in June, and caught the golfing world off-guard.

Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods putts on the 16th green during the second round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on 8 April, 2023 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Closer to decisions

Woods was one of those kept in the dark in the weeks leading up to the surprise announcement of a framework agreement between the PGA and PIF. He was not happy.

But instead of turning his back on the game, Woods decided to become part of the solution and joined the PGA Tour’s policy board along with Jordan Spieth.

Being on the board takes Woods a little closer to the negotiations and decisions that will impact the sport he helped launch into the mainstream over the past two decades.

Part of that process is finalising the merger framework and details by 31 December, which is fast approaching. It might not happen either as the PGA Tour is also reportedly considering offers from equity partners that could also inject billions into the sport.

“My reaction (to the merger deal) was surprise as I’m sure there were a lot of players who were taken aback by what happened,” Woods said this week.  

“So quickly without any input or any information about it, it was just thrown out there. I was very surprised that the process was what it was.

“We were very frustrated with what happened and we took steps to ensure that we were not going to be left out of the process like we were. Part of that process was putting me on the board.

“I was frustrated with the fact that the players were never involved. This is our tour, and we were all taken back by it. It happened so quickly without any of our involvement. No one knew. That can’t happen again.

“How we do that is having six player directors so we control the board. We control what we’re going to do. This is our tour.”

Woods did express some support for PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who was understandably cast as a villain by players and other interested parties that remained loyal to the PGA Tour when LIV came calling.

Monahan endured severe criticism because he asked players to trust the PGA Tour and then showed no trust in return by negotiating with the PIF in secret.

“Part of why I came on to the board is I did have faith in Jay and in what he could do going forward and what can’t happen again,” Woods said.

“I’m now pleased at the process and how it’s evolved. Also frustrated in some of the slowness and the governance change that we want to have happen. And 31 December is coming up very quickly, so there’s the timetable there that we would like to implement some of these changes that have not taken place.”

Woods also dead-batted the idea of the LIV rebels, who are currently suspended, finding a way back to playing regularly on the PGA Tour.

He didn’t rule it out, but did admit that there was too much uncertainty about the future structure of the game to commit to LIV players receiving PGA Tour playing privileges in the immediate future.

“As far as that pathway [back], we’re still working on that,” Woods said. 

“There are so many different scenarios. That’s why I said there’s a lot of sleepless hours trying to figure that out… All the parties are talking and we’re aggressively working on trying to get a deal done.

“Everyone involved wants a return, that’s just part of doing deals, but we have to protect the integrity of our tour and what it stands for.”

Talor Gooch, Liv Golf

Talor Gooch of the RangeGoats hugs his Australian caddie Mal Baker after winning the Liv Golf Adelaide at The Grange Golf Course on 23 April, 2023 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo: Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Ready to play

On course, Woods is ready to compete again after withdrawing from the 2023 Masters with severe pain in his leg. He was still recovering more than a year after a serious car accident nearly cost him the limb.

He revealed this week that he will compete regularly in 2024. It’s another boost for the sport because, even in the twilight of his competitive years, Woods is still the biggest name in the sport. He ‘moves the needle’ more than anyone.

“I can tell you this, I don’t have any of the pain that I had at Augusta in my ankle,” Woods said, revealing that his joint has been fused. “Yeah other parts are taking the brunt of the load so I’m a little more sore in other areas, but the ankle’s good. So that surgery was a success.

“I think the best scenario would be maybe to play a tournament a month — I think that’s realistic.

“You would have to start with maybe at the Genesis [Invitational in February] and something in March near The Players. We have [it] set up [in the schedule] right now that the biggest events are one per month. Now, I need to get myself ready for all that. I think this week is a big step in that direction. 

“What drives me is I love to compete. There will come a point in time — and I don’t think I’m there yet — when I won’t be able to win again. When that day comes, I’ll walk.” DM

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