By Will Gray
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Walking around Sedgefield Country Club, you can still feel the echoes.
If you close your eyes, you can still envision the throngs that gathered a year ago, the thousands that packed this cozy layout on the off-chance they might see him walk by for an instant – a blur of red, black and swagger.
It was exactly a year ago, on Aug. 23, 2015, that Tiger Woods took the Wyndham Championship by storm. He started the final round two shots off the lead, in search of a win that would end a two-year drought and serve as an emphatic coda to an otherwise disappointing season.
After bombing out at the PGA Championship the week prior, Woods made a last-minute decision to add Greensboro to his schedule for the first time. It was a surprising choice, but one that seemed to kick-start his idle game.
There were stingers. There were club twirls. There were birdies by the handful, and there were crowds the likes of which only Woods can deliver, as the people of Greensboro flocked to watch a man who once again seemed comfortable in his element.
“I’m just guessing, but we had to have had 20,000 people following our group,” said Scott Brown, who played with Woods in last year’s final round. “It was 10-deep, wrapped around every hole. It was unbelievable.”
He was back. And just like that, he was gone.
Sure, we’ve seen Woods make a handful of appearances since. There was the Zapruder-level analysis of his simulator 9-iron back in February, and the disastrous outing at Quicken Loans National media day in May.
But 365 days have passed since Tiger’s last competitive swing. A hiatus once measured in weeks and months has stretched to include an entire year, and it may not end anytime soon.
“It’s tough to ignore that the golf world is a little different, a little quieter without him,” said Graeme McDowell. “We’re not ready to talk about a post-Tiger world, but everyone’s starting to think about that.”
Woods announced a pair of back surgeries in the weeks that followed his T-10 finish at last year’s Wyndham, and the resulting wait-and-see left legions of fans hoping he would turn up again at Augusta, or maybe Quail Hollow, or perhaps Royal Troon – only to be disappointed each and every time.
“While I continue to work hard and get healthy, I am not physically ready to play in this year’s U.S. Open or Quicken Loans National,” Woods wrote on June 7, the most recent health update posted to his website. “I am making progress, but I’m not yet ready for competition.”
When that return to competition might occur remains the subject of much conjecture. Some hold out hope that he’ll tee it up at the season-opening Safeway Open, while others target the limited-field Hero World Challenge in December or even tournaments in early 2017, at which point Woods will be 41 years old.
When reached for comment Monday, Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg offered little insight.
“No update at this time,” Steinberg said via email. “He continues to make progress.”
Whenever Woods does get back inside the ropes, it’s not even clear what equipment he’ll be using. Nike’s recent decision to get out of the golf equipment space means that Woods is shopping for a potential suitor, adding yet another variable to the growing equation.
“He and I have discussed at length a plan for that, and feel comfortable with what we’re going to do going forward,” Steinberg told GolfChannel.com earlier this month. “But clearly, there’s likely going to be a change.”
While so much surrounding Woods’ status remains uncertain, the impact of his lengthy absence on the PGA Tour is quite evident.
“You look at tournaments like Bay Hill, the tournaments that he’s accustomed to playing like San Diego. The crowds they get, that they get for him, it’s not the same,” Billy Horschel said. “It’s disappointing that he’s not out here playing. It’s disappointing that you don’t feel the energy. Still a lot of energy, but that extra special energy when he’s in the field, especially near the lead, isn’t there.”
There was strong fan support this year at the Wyndham, as spectators flocked to local favorites like Webb Simpson and Bill Haas as well as another surprising tournament newcomer, Rickie Fowler.
But the modest crowds that gathered around Sedgefield’s tees and greens only highlighted the fact that the mass influx sparked by Woods’ appearance last year won’t be seen here again anytime soon.
“Tiger is still the biggest draw in our game. No one else compares to him,” Horschel said. “Fans like to argue with me on Twitter about it, but they don’t get it. I understand that they look at Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and they get big fans, but Tiger’s in a different level. He’s in a level that few have ever been.”
Much has changed in golf over the last year. Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson have become major champions. Day has cemented his status as the world’s best player, while another promising crop of young guns has found its footing.
The biggest figure in golf, however, remains stuck in neutral.
“Obviously, we’d love to see him back. We’d love to see him come back and potentially start winning events again,” McDowell said. “He’s been so great for the game. But we know he’s got health issues, and time could be against him now.”
The images from Woods’ surprise detour to Greensboro still seem vivid. But one year later, the buzz that overtook Sedgefield has slowly faded away.
All that remains are the memories, along with the fervent hope that we’ll someday be able to witness it all again.
“I hope he comes back. I hope he’s healthy,” Horschel said. “I’d just like to see him give it one last good shot. If that’s what he wants to do, I want to see it.”