For first-year golf writers hitting the holiday party circuit, two questions keep popping up.
What’s it like to spend seven days at the Masters?
What’s Tiger Woods going to do this year?
Each is difficult to answer for different reasons.
The Augusta National experience can not be sufficiently conveyed over small talk and appetizers. Tiger Woods’ comeback prospects, meanwhile, are easier to discuss but harder to pin down.
We’re right where we were a year ago, with Woods having played in just one recent tournament entering 2018. But this year feels different. Woods tallied a better result at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, finishing T-9. The swing looked different, too – fluid and more powerful. Chipping was the biggest issue but he looked fine with the putter, and hit some vintage Tiger long iron and 3-wood approaches throughout the week.
Woods has not yet announced a schedule but hopes to play at the Genesis Open in Los Angeles, and our best guess at his next appearance would be the Farmers Insurance Open next month at Torrey Pines.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three different scenarios for Tiger’s impact on golf come 2018.
Let’s face it – Tiger has a massive impact on gallery sizes and television ratings every time he tees it up. His mere presence warrants serious attention. There’s no way the Hero World Challenge would have received half of the media attention it did without Tiger, despite the fact that by nature this tournament always features the biggest names in golf.
Woods could miss 10 straight cuts and still impact daily coverage, with analysts fretting over swing flaws and media questioning whether or not he’s truly done this time.
An injury followed by another sustained absence is the only scenario in which Tiger would fail to make a serious impression, good or bad. As long as Tiger is capable of swinging a club, we’ll be watching.
Let’s say Tiger does stay healthy enough to play in 12-15 tournaments this year, including all four majors. If he’s playing somewhere, that’s national news. No one else in the sport can generate those headlines and attention with their presence alone. That goes for Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and the rest of the PGA Tour stars who each bring great qualities to the game but fail to move the meter on a national level outside the golf world.
This scenario would look a bit like Tiger’s 2014-15 seasons. He missed time due to injury in both years but teed it up enough to stay relevant, with seven starts in 2013-14 and 11 in 2014-15.
Tiger finished 69th at the British Open and missed the cut at the PGA Championship in 2014. He finished T-17 at the 2015 Masters, his best major result since a T-6 at the 2013 British Open. He missed the cut in the following three majors that year and played poorly enough with rounds of 80-76 at the U.S. Open and 76-75 at the British Open that many rushed to define it as the end of the Tiger Woods era as we know it.
We’re still sort of stuck in that same limbo, performance-wise. Off the course, we have reason to believe Woods is actually a changed man. He’s been more buddy-buddy with fellow players, has said he’s finally pain-free and completed a rehab program following a DUI arrest in May. Then there are statements like the one he issued Friday.
“I appreciate competitive golf now more than I ever have,” Woods said. “During that 10-month period I was away from the game, I had a hard time walking and often needed assistance getting out of bed. To go from that and be able to play golf – I hadn’t played without pain for a long time – it was nice to just go out there and chill out, have fun with the guys and needle them. The next step was competition.”
As we saw, that competition included serious distance gains – he often outdrove PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas – and far fewer grimaces and painful-looking movements from the man who will turn 42 Saturday.
Tiger also indicated he’d love to play his version of a “full schedule,” whatever that may entail. Thing is, he doesn’t even need to win in order to make a major impact right away.
It’s hard to fathom the impact he could have by contending Sunday at a major, particularly out of the gate at Augusta National. His presence in one of the final pairings at any tournament, let alone a major, would captivate the entire nation for reasons beyond golf – a scandal-ridden, aging icon’s last run at greatness we became so accustomed to over the years. Thousands who haven’t watched golf in three years would stop what they’re doing to tune in.
If he were able to actually win another major? It would capture the collective attention of our nation at a time when everyone is in their own, separate world, glued to whichever headline Twitter and Faecbook algorithms deliver individually.
A Tiger major victory would echo well beyond social media bubbles and represent one of the greatest stories in the history of sport. Thus, we believe Woods has a chance to make the biggest impact of any active professional athlete in 2018.