In the Los Angeles Angels' spring training clubhouse this month the best player in baseball was giddily following a certain PGA Tour star. One day, Mike Trout had almost everybody in the clubhouse watching with him.
The day before North Carolina's men's basketball team began its title defense, coach Roy Williams was glued to his smartphone. There was no doubt why. As Williams began one news conference by saying: "Tiger Woods just birdied a hole. He's the sole leader now at four under par through 16 holes. That's all I got."
And in Sonoma, Calif., the son of a longtime Ping Golf employee could barely contain his excitement. David Griffin calls himself a "greatness groupie," but until last summer he had a more prominent title, general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Griffin realized that building a team around LeBron James was an assignment of historical significance. "I felt like we were caretaking for the legacy of Babe Ruth," he says. Griffin understands as well as anybody that we are watching the Babe Ruth of golf.
In his last three tournaments Woods has finished 12th, tied for second, and tied for fifth. Yet he has looked good enough and healthy enough to remind us that there are two kinds of golfers in the world: Tiger, and everybody else.
During the Valspar Championship, which Woods nearly won, so many people tried to watch on the streaming service PGA Tour Live that it crashed. (The Tour cited "unprecedented traffic" and said "roughly 25%" of subscribers lost their connection for 25 minutes.) Says Griffin, "If they had a channel dedicated to Tiger's practice rounds at the Masters, it would be the most watched television channel in sports." The Golf Channel has a popular Twitter feed, @GCTigerTracker, dedicated exclusively to Tiger updates.
When Woods was winning majors—he won 14 from 1997 to 2008—he was the best show in sports. He was longer than any other great player and much better than anybody who hit it as long. He was the toughest, the smartest, the most clutch and more talented than anybody who ever played. And even that didn't fully explain the phenomenon.
Other golfers looked like walking websites cluttered with too many ads: logos on their hats, collars, chests and sleeves, all for different corporate sponsors. Woods wore one logo, Nike's swoosh, on all of his clothing. He had muscles to fulfill all the other golfers' New Year's resolutions. Once his round started he had an uncanny ability to never acknowledge the crowd—not a wink, not a wave, not a smile. He would walk from a green to the next tee with throngs of people cheering him from either side and not react at all.
The cumulative effect was stunning. Woods looked like he had dropped in from another planet.
Woods is different now. We know (too much) about his personal struggles. He has struggled for so long to get healthy that even he seemed to wonder if he would ever return. Now here he is, 42 years old, with a fused back, a new swing and that old look.
The club twirls. The magical touch around the green. The scrambles for pars and the tap-in birdies. He will never dominate like he once did, but the 2018 version of Tigermania is like a lot of reunion tours. We don't ask for new works of genius—just a reasonable copy of the old ones.
There was a time when you could swear that Woods's tee shots sounded different, and PGA Tour pros would confirm it. He routinely put his drives 30 yards past his playing partners'. Now, the joy of watching Woods is not about length. In a long-driving contest right now, most of the best players in the game—Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm—would be favored over Woods. It's not even about shot-making. Woods gives people a feeling that no other golfer can provide.
Fans are standing on their toes to get a glimpse of Tiger for the same reason people ignore brilliant works of art in the Louvre so that they can crowd around the Mona Lisa: There is only one like that.
Some Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed Woods as the Masters favorite. That sounds crazy—he hasn't won a tournament in five years—but don't you want to believe it?
Woods will never win at Augusta by 12 strokes again. He may never be No. 1 in the world again. (He's now 105th—or 551 spots higher than he was at the end of 2017.) But when he shows up to a tournament saying he expects to win—which is what he has always said, forever—it brings more goose bumps than eye-rolls. If he stays healthy he can win another major, and after all his surgeries, that would be one of the great sports stories of the decade. The most successful people in sports are riveted. Aren't you?