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The Return of Tiger Woods

08 DEC 2017

By Peter Mumford

By most measures, Tiger Woods’ play at the Hero World Challenge was a resounding success.

He played all four rounds, apparently pain free; his swing looked smooth and powerful; for the most part, he hit the shots he wanted; at one point on Friday he had the lead in the tournament; and at the end, his 8-under score put him in a tie for 9th, right in the middle of the pack.

He was never really in contention but he didn’t lag way behind the field either. And he finished ahead of a lot of world class players.

I think that probably exceeded most expectations. Memories from a year ago of Tiger dropping to his hands and knees in agony after a hit were still fresh.

So realistically, what did people expect?

He hadn’t played a competitive round in almost a year; had missed large parts of the past four seasons on the PGA Tour; had several potentially career ending back surgeries; and he had endured another public embarrassment following a DUI arrest. Tiger also acknowledged that he was addicted to pain killers.

Tiger fans were elated that he was back. They would have been happy if he shot 80 every day and finished dead last. Just to see him play again was a win for them.

The rest of the golfing world fell somewhere between being happy to see him playing again to dreading a return to the all-Tiger-all-the-time fawning and gushing TV coverage that used to dominate most tournaments, even if Tiger wasn’t in contention.

Now that we know Tiger can still play golf at a competitive level, the next big questions are ‘when will he play next and how often might we see him in 2018?’

During post-round interviews Tiger was careful not to make any predictions. He wouldn’t even acknowledge where he might play next. He simply said that he and his team would assess all the factors and make some decisions soon about his schedule.

You can bet that he’ll play all the majors. He has a lifetime exemption to play the Masters and the PGA Championship and his 2008 U.S. Open win at Torrey Pines carries a 10-year exemption, meaning he’ll be eligible to tee it up at Shinnecock Hills in June. After that, it’s almost guaranteed that the USGA would grant him a special exemption for as long as he wants to play. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer both received special exemptions to play in the U.S. Open later in their careers.

As for the Open Championship, Tiger is fully exempt until he’s 60 based on the three Claret Jugs sitting in his trophy case.

The WGC events are a different story. They extend invitations based on world ranking. At the moment Tiger would not be eligible for any of them in 2018. Although, as he has always said, “winning takes care of everything.”

As for other regular Tour events that Tiger might play, that will depend a lot on their position on the PGA Tour schedule. It’s not like he has to worry about eligibility. He’s exempt for life based on a minimum of 20 PGA Tour wins (79) and being a PGA Tour member for at least 15 years. Besides, any tournament organizer in the world would be delighted to have Tiger Woods in their field.

It’s unlikely that he’ll play three weeks in a row – even back-to-back weeks will be rare . He’ll probably only play 12-15 events all season and that will include some favourites like Torrey Pines, Bay Hill and Muirfield Village where he has won multiple times in the past. And, although he hasn’t specifically said anything about the Ryder Cup, you know he’d love to be a playing member of the U.S. team that goes to France at the end of September.

Woods as a qualifier? It’s a long shot right now but this is Tiger we’re talking about. How about a Captain’s pick? If he’s anywhere close in terms of ranking points and recent good form, then Captain Jim Furyk would be crazy not to add him to the team.

When you look at the PGA Tour schedule based on the above criteria, Tiger’s schedule might look as follows: Torrey Pines at the end of January, Riviera in mid February, followed by Bay Hill in March, the Masters in April and The Players in May. After Jack’s tournament in early June, Tiger would play the U.S. Open in mid-June, then The National at the end of the month, where he is the host and the tournament benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation. Then, it’s off to the UK for the Open Championship and back for the PGA Championship.

That’s 10 events. Tiger probably wants to leave some flexibility in case he plays well and rockets up the world rankings, making him eligible for some of the WGC events.

Finally, if eligible, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be, Tiger would likely play two or three of the FedEx Cup playoffs and maybe the Ryder Cup.

All of this discussion of eligibility for WGC events and the Ryder Cup may be getting way ahead of things but it’s essential to answering the really big question every golf fan is now asking: ‘Can Tiger win again and can he win majors?’

At the Hero, Tiger drove the ball much better than most analysts predicted and his iron play was spot on. The short game showed it still needs some work and his putting was at times brilliant and other times just mediocre. Overall, it was a pretty good showing for someone that hadn’t played a competitive round in almost a year. Anybody under such circumstances is inclined to have a little rust they need to shake off but Tiger’s game also showed plenty of flashes of “old Tiger” that simply made golf fans shake their heads and say, ‘did you see that!’

Tiger said one of the hardest things he had to adjust to was learning how to play with the adrenaline flowing again.

Former coaches were mixed in their assessment. Hank Haney thought Tiger’s chipping was still a trouble spot while Butch Harmon was excited about Tiger’s ball striking.

There’s no doubt the rust will go and Tiger will adapt to game conditions quickly. While he has nothing left to prove to anybody, Tiger is ultra competitive - not someone who would be content to be a ‘ceremonial’ player. If he’s playing, he’s playing to win.

So can he win again?

Lots of PGA Tour players have played well and won in their 40’s. Lots more have come back from injuries to have a second successful career on the Tour; and more still have overcome personal tragedies, emotional distress and public embarrassment to taste victory one more time.

Has anybody overcome all of those things to win again?

Probably not.

But this is Tiger Woods we’re talking about – at least one of the best two players ever to tee it up.

As Butch Harmon said, “When it comes to Tiger Woods, never say never.” 

Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag