Tiger Woods just wanted 'to walk without pain'

Credit: Jeff Siner

Credit: Jeff Siner

You don't "work" golf. You play golf.

At its core for most people, golf is a good excuse to hang out in the sunshine with your friends — or a good walk spoiled, depending on how you're hitting it that day.

The thing with Tiger Woods, though, no matter how well he was hitting it in all those vintage Tiger years, was he rarely seemed to be having much fun.

Tiger would stare right through galleries of fans aching for any sort of interaction with him like they were a forest of troublesome pine trees — just more obstacles in the way of the mission.

The only regular eye contact Tiger supplied back then was to his golf ball. He would pump a fist and scream in celebration occasionally after rolling in a long putt, sure, but the 1,000-watt smile he flashed in all those commercials was rarely apparent on the course.

That was then and this is now — Tiger Woods is 42 years old. He long ago fell from the ranks of superhuman athletes into the "very human and very flawed" category. He has survived multiple scandals, multiple back surgeries and multiple times that he thought maybe he was going to have to leave the game for good.

But Tiger is back in Charlotte this week, playing at Quail Hollow Club for the first time since 2012. He enters the Wells Fargo Championship ranked 93rd in the world — and still smiling due to a second chance to play the game he still loves.

"I am very thankful," Woods said Wednesday. "There was a long period of time when I didn't think I would ever play golf again. I was just hoping I could walk without pain. And now I'm out here playing against these guys."

Tiger won't be favored this week in Charlotte. It would be quite an accomplishment if he could place in the top 10.

The last two times he played the Wells Fargo Championship, he shot 74-79 in 2010 and 71-73 in 2012. On both occasions, he missed the cut. He wasn't even around for the weekend when the golf gets serious.

But he did also win this tournament in 2007 — the only time he has ever won a PGA Tour event in North Carolina — and has finished in the top five three times.

Tiger has always enjoyed playing Quail Hollow Club when his body would let him, and fans in Charlotte are fortunate that he is healthy enough to play it again this week. (He said the course is "much harder than it used to be, that's for sure.")

In any tournament, even if he doesn't finish near the leaders, Tiger is still a lock to move the proverbial needle.

Tiger's body is different than it used to be, of course. All those back surgeries means he can't uncork his swing with the raw power that he once had.

"I certainly can't lift the weights I used to," Woods said. "I can't run the way I used to. There's a lot of things I wish I could do, but I can't." He sounded like a lot of 42-year-olds at that moment, wishing for the way he used to be at 22.

And yet he still is Tiger Woods, bemoaning the 115 mph golf swing he was taking several years ago as "slow motion" and talking in technical terms about the groove configurations in the new irons that he hopes will cure the inconsistency he had with those clubs at the Masters.

Once popular with the gallery because of his utter dominance at a youthful age and really not much else, Woods now is cheered for a variety of reasons. Some of it is undoubtedly a sympathetic reaction. But it also seems to stem a bit from Woods trying to be a better man.

Observer reporter Brendan Marks was following Woods around Wednesday as Woods played in the annual pro-am. At one point, as Woods approached his ball on the fairway, a male fan yelled: "I love you, Tiger!"

The old Woods had heard this sort of thing many hundreds of times. And even in a pro-am, when the scores don't count, odds are that he would have either ignored it or, at best, given a curt nod in that direction.

This time, though, Woods looked the fan's way and paused.

"Awwwww," Tiger said with a big grin. "I love you, too."

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