Playing in the Ryder Cup will be the culmination of an amazing comeback season for Tiger Woods, one the 14-time major champion feared might never happen after back surgery.
The 42-year-old American has shown flashes of the form that made him golf’s dominant player in younger days in his first campaign after spinal fusion surgery, a last-gasp operation to try and extend his legendary career.
“It was a last-ditch effort,” Woods said. “I tried everything else because fusion is the last-ditch effort and nothing beyond that. So didn’t know what my playing career would be like. This is all uncharted territory.”
So far, Woods’ performances are steadily improving and the medical charts are showing no back issues after years of nagging problems.
Woods has hit drives longer than his youthful days, led the British Open in the final round in July, finished second in last month’s PGA Championship and fired a 62 earlier this month, his lowest US PGA opening round since the 1999 Byron Nelson Classic.
And the former world number one achieved his goal of securing a Ryder Cup captain’s pick from Jim Furyk, who pulled him from a planned assistant captain’s role after seeing the quality of his game.
“Deep down, I wanted to make the team. I really wanted to play on it,” Woods said. “I had not started playing golf really yet, but still, it was a goal at the end of the season to make this team.
“As the year progressed, I gained some traction and was somehow able to get some high finishes and lo and behold, I’m a part of this team. It’s incredible, it really is, to look back at the start of the year and to have accomplished a goal like that. To be a player is just beyond special.”
Woods still hasn’t won a major since the 2008 US Open and hasn’t won any event in more than five years, but has rediscovered the joy of playing after fears it might never happen again.
“It’s about enjoying being back,” Woods said. “Enjoying being able to play golf again. Competing at this level. All of these things at the beginning of the year were all unknowns. It has been one of my best years as a whole.
“To have a winless year, but to go through what I’ve gone through — I didn’t know if I was ever going to play again, I was just hoping to be able to play with my kids and golf with my buddies at home — this has been a blessing.
“It has been so special to have this opportunity again. I’m certainly not taking it for granted, that’s for sure.”
Woods went into spinal fusion fearing his chronic back pain might linger for life.
“I had resigned (myself) to it because I had lived in a pretty difficult situation for a while. I just wanted the pain to go away,” Woods said. “It was painful sitting, laying, moving, anything. It was just constant pain in my back and down my leg.
“Anything beyond that was going to be a plus considering where I was coming from, and so to get to where I’m at, I never thought that was going to happen.”
Woods, who had 79 career PGA titles, hasn’t given up his quest to reach the record 18 major wins of Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead’s all-time PGA mark of 82.
“In order to get to Jack’s record, I have to pass Snead’s record. Just simple math,” Woods said. “And I want to make that happen. I’m close. I have been close to winning tournaments this year. I think if I keep giving myself opportunities, I’ll get the job done.
“I feel my next wins are coming soon. How soon, I don’t know, but I’m putting myself in tournaments now so I’m not that far away from getting it done.”
Woods, whose first major title came at the 1997 Masters, has seen huge support from crowds at events, his amazing shotmaking at an older age sparking roars and cheers rivaling those of his youth.
“People are more appreciative,” Woods said. “They know that I’m at the tail end of my career and I don’t know how many more years I have left. I’m certainly not like I was when I was 22 — 42, it’s a different ballgame.”
And, Woods says, people can relate more to fighting back pain than superb golf heroics.
“Everyone has got aches and pains,” he said. And whether you’ve had kids or not, you get to your 40s, you’re feeling it, and I’m not the only one.”
The Ryder Cup takes place from the 25th to the 30th of September in Le Golf National, Paris.
© Agence France-Presse (additional edits from Joseph McBrien)