As far as arrangements for the Masters go, a competitive golfer with ceremonial-golfer expectations is a pretty good deal.
It’s not known whether Tiger Woods can be competitive at a major championship. What is known, however, is that everyone would be happy to see him roll down Magnolia Lane and tee it up next Thursday not giving a damn whether he could break 80. That’s the unique prospect that faces Woods, who is currently in the Masters field, has been reportedly “testing” what he can do at his home in South Florida, and now may be visiting Augusta National. It’s a salivating proposition.
It would come in stark contrast to the last two times he returned to Augusta after extended breaks, one for a public sex scandal that brought daily embarrassments on a national stage and the other for chipping yips. Those are far more daunting mental and emotional challenges accompanying a return that one could face before even starting the tournament, which is also not some sleepy silly season event, but again, the Masters, the biggest stage in the sport. This time there would be no scold from the chairman of the club or arresting anxiety every time he stood over a chip wondering if he could simply hit a basic shot anymore. This time he’d return to nothing but universal relief and happiness. We’re happy you’re alive, and that you’re here.
Everything after that would feel secondary, including the golf. We’ll get to the formidable physical challenge, but as far as the mental challenges go, nearly losing a leg seems slight by comparison to those two prior reappearances with a drive down Magnolia Lane. There would be justifiable excitement to see him play again, and the fervent fanboys’ belief that he can win. But no shot or score could be considered embarrassing or not worth showing up for if he can physically do it, and Tiger has to know that. Fear of some substandard play has also never stopped him before. Recall the 2015 parade of MCs at majors that included cold tops into “basement” bunkers, shanks, and bladed chips while his back was disintegrating on him in less conspicuous ways than the lowlight reel. The last time he played the Masters he made a septuple bogey 10 on a par 3 and then, when there was little to play for, birdied five of the next six holes to finish the tournament.
He has nothing to prove on a golf course, and a couple of bad rounds after nearly losing his leg is not going to diminish a thing. Simply practicing at Augusta, not even in the Masters, is a major milestone in this recovery process. Alex Smith walking on the field to take a snap was the triumph, not the play that came after it. And Tiger’s recovery to once again tee it up in a competitive event, whether it’s next week, next month, or next year, would be the same.
Yet that was not some husk of a former golfer playing the PNC Championship in December. His speed numbers were more than adequate, hitting tour levels. The driver swings were not the bunts of the ceremonial golfer, a role Tiger has adamantly said before that he would not play. That tournament was also four months ago.
The sample from the PNC is not worthless when considering if this Masters return could be real, but that event also included a scramble format, low stakes, and a cart. Which brings us to the physical, the unknown and perhaps insurmountable challenge. While he would have all the Monster energy anyone can handle in his squeeze bottle, he would not have a cart at Augusta National, which, as you may have heard, is a much hillier golf course than it appears on your TV. It’s a big walk, nothing like the flat terrain of his South Florida testing grounds, and certainly not the ideal return spot for someone with a major leg injury.
But his name is still in the field, well after Phil Mickelson’s was withdrawn from it, and he’s reportedly ready to “exhaust every effort” to play. Long gone is the “I only show up to win” mindset he maintained though his peak years and beyond, even as his body broke down. He’s the most competitive golfer we’ve ever seen, but those expectations to win every time have been reset by his own words in his sunset years. In 2015, he said that any subsequent victory would be “gravy” following his back injuries, and last year, he acknowledged that he would never be a full-time golfer again. Resetting expectations doesn’t mean it’s not worth competing.
That the 2022 Masters is even in question, that we’re back on “Tiger watch” again, is remarkable. Even the term “Tiger watch” feels hopeful now, like a windfall itself compared to the ominous and bleak uncertainties it connoted in the prior decade.
Tiger Woods would be at the Masters to legitimately compete and make a public return to golf, but part of him also has to recognize and revel in the reception it would trigger and the expectations he’d defy just by showing up. Woods would not come to play ceremonial golf, but this would be a celebration, and that has to make him want it even more.