Mark O’Meara was enjoying breakfast with his son, Shaun, earlier this month at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club in Orlando, Florida, when the morning chitchat was interrupted by an unannounced guest.
“I was sitting down and looked to my left and he’s standing right next to me and he’s coming in [for a hug]. He said, ‘Don’t get up M.O., don’t get up.’ I’m like, I’m getting up,” O’Meara laughed. “He gave me a big hug and I told him I loved him. I told him I was just so thankful he was OK and you’re here with Charlie.”
Tiger Woods joined the O’Meara’s for breakfast like it was 2000 and they were hanging out at Isleworth, the Orlando-area country club he joined when he turned professional and where he and O’Meara became friends.
There was plenty to talk about on the eve of the PNC Championship – Woods’ only competitive golf in 2021 – but this wasn’t about golf or the annual parent-child event that has become an entertaining fall staple on the golf schedule. For O’Meara, this was a chance to finally catch up with his friend following a single-vehicle car crash in Los Angeles in February that required multiple surgeries on Woods’ right leg and, by all accounts, was the most physically grueling rehabilitation in a career filled with physically grueling rehabilitation.
Tiger Woods’ competitive future may still be uncertain, but his first tournament in a year did offer a glimpse into where he might be headed.
“It’s a big feat for him just to come back and play the PNC and who knows where he goes from here, but knowing the competitive nature that burns inside Tiger Woods I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play again on the PGA Tour,” O’Meara said.
It’s the million-dollar question heading into a new year: What’s next for Tiger Woods?
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As encouraging as Woods’ play was at the Ritz, where he and Charlie finished in second place behind John Daly and his son, it’s difficult to project from a 36-hole, team event where he needed a golf cart to even play. Woods turns 46 this week, which is still relatively young for golfers, but as his medical history proves, it’s been a hard 46 years.
Woods had no interest in speculation. The PNC Championship was clearly a one-off driven entirely by the chance for a father to spend some quality time with his son. As for what he had planned for 2022 and beyond, there is clearly no timeline.
“I’m not going to play a full schedule ever again. I’m going to have to pick and choose what events, and even then, my body might not cooperate with that,” Woods said. “I don’t know how many events I’m going to be playing in. And it’s going to be up to training sessions, practice sessions, recovery tactics, all those different things to be able to do it.”
For O’Meara, who was alongside Woods during his more productive and historic years on Tour, it’s not a question of if he ever plays again.
“I think he’s in a pretty good place. I hope and pray that’s the case. I don’t know if he comes back and plays like he has in the past after what happened in February, but you can never underestimate this young man,” O’Meara said and then paused to add, “I know he’s not a young man anymore, but every time everyone us have thought, well, maybe it’s not going to happen, it does.”
John Cook was also at Isleworth during those early years in Woods’ career and despite the age difference, the two shared a familiar Southern California bond. Like O’Meara, he’s watched Woods overcome incredible odds his entire career.
“I’d give it a solid 8 ½ [on a scale of 1-10 that he plays again]. I don’t see it in the next 12 months,” Cook said. “I think next time we see him will be here [PNC Championship] next year. I don’t think his body will be physically ready. He can’t train the way he’s going to want to train.
“He’s never been a ‘show up’ guy if his game isn’t ready for prime time. [But] I see it happening at some point otherwise he wouldn’t be testing a ball, shaping shots on the practice tee, working on a new driver that he likes. I think there’s a motive to that.”
Neither Cook nor O’Meara make their predictions lightly. Of all the injuries and setbacks Woods has endured, this is clearly something far more arduous and painful.
“Talking to him, he was pretty open and honest,” Cook said. “He said he was exhausted. He saw enough good stuff with his short clubs and his feel, but the long irons were falling out of the sky, but that was just from some mishits. But he said, ‘I’ll get that.’”
Cook called that a “motive,” something to work towards. A goal on the wall of his South Florida home to keep him hungry much like Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships that were pinned to his childhood home in Southern California, according to legend.
That goal – that mountain, as Woods might say – is why two of his oldest friends left the PNC Championship confident that Woods’ return, whether it’s in 2022 or beyond, is inevitable.