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If Tiger Woods Tees Off At The Masters, He’ll Be Playing To Win

It really does look like it’s about to happen. Thirteen-and-a-half months after a car crash that Tiger Woods said could have resulted in the amputation of his lower right leg, the greatest golfer of his time looks poised to return to competitive play at the tournament with which he has become almost synonymous: the Masters. In a sport packed with young stars, the veteran is the week’s biggest story.

Outside of a fun-filled father-son event in December, Tiger has not played an official round since the COVID-adjusted November Masters in 2020. But he is in the field list, he played a practice round at Augusta National last week and reports from his sessions this week have been positive. He said on Sunday that he would be a “game-time decision,” and his public tone is trending in a positive direction even since then. At a Tuesday press conference, he said, “As of right now, I feel like I am going to play.” If nothing goes awry Wednesday, you’ll see him tee off on Thursday at 10:34 a.m. Eastern. 

Assuming Woods plays, the prevailing sentiment will be how nice it is to see him on the course at all, given the severity of his crash and the prospect that it would rob him of more than the late stages of his career. He could card 79s in the first and second rounds and miss the cut in last place, and his presence would still give the whole tournament a vibes boost. 

Yet Woods has been clear about the condition that would bring about his return to professional golf: He will play when he thinks he can be competitive. “I don’t want to come out here and just play,” he told CBS during an interview at his California tournament in February. “That’s how I am. I need to feel that I’m confident that I can beat these guys, and I got to do the legwork at home. It’s on me.” His close friend Justin Thomas said more or less the same on the No Laying Up podcast: “I don’t see him ever playing if he can’t play well. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who’s played at home and he’s shooting a bunch of 75s and 76s and he’s like, ‘OK, I’m gonna give Augusta a try this year.’ That’s not really gonna be him, at least from my understanding, what I know of him.” 

The man with 15 major championships is probably not in dire need of the $10,000 paid out even to those who miss a Masters cut. But aside from his public statements, the reasons to buy into an effective return are simple: Woods was a competitive player even as he faded a bit prior to his 2021 crash. He has a masterful grasp of Augusta National that should serve him well as he ages. And most simply: It’s Tiger, and it’s Augusta National, so the best idea is to just strap in. 

There’s no need to beat around the azaleas: When Woods last played competitive rounds, he was in decline. Across the calendar years of 2018 and 2019, according to shot-tracking analytics site Data Golf, he gained 1.9 strokes per round against the field — the fifth-best mark during that period of any of the players in the current Masters field. His approach shots were his best asset, accounting for more than a shot gained per round. But from the start of 2020 until his crash, he gained 0.1 strokes per round, making him almost an exactly average PGA Tour pro. 

Those were bizarre times, though. The onset of the pandemic led the tour to pause play from March to June and created scheduling oddities, like a Masters in November. Woods was likely not operating at full strength, either. He underwent both knee and back procedures between late August 2019 and January 2021, even before his car accident. He recorded only 34 measured rounds (for strokes-gained purposes) between New Year’s 2020 and his crash.

On the one hand, Woods is 46 now, and injury rehabs in a player’s mid-40s are anything but a guarantee. On the other hand, the circumstances of Tiger’s 2020 decline (with his most recent professional appearance coming at that November Masters, where he tied for 38th) were abnormal. In 2019, he won this tournament and then continued to perform at top-10 level despite what was already an advanced age. Woods won the green jacket at 43, 11 years older than the typical winner.

Any comparison of Woods to another player is apples to oranges. For one thing, he’s Tiger Woods. For another, there aren’t many examples (if any) of players of his caliber returning from layoffs like this one for events like the Masters. But strictly in terms of their most recent on-course performance, golfers have come from deeper pits than Woods to win majors. 

In fact, someone has done it in the past year. Phil Mickelson entered the 2021 PGA Championship averaging 0.6 strokes lost to the field over his previous 50 rounds, and he won it by two strokes. Other recent major winners who had not wowed in their 50 latest pre-tournament rounds include 2019 British Open winner Shane Lowry (+1 stroke gained per round, per Data Golf) and 2016 PGA winner Jimmy Walker (0.8).

Woods’s 50-round strokes gained average when his career stopped was 0.6, well above where Mickelson was when he won in 2021 and not far from Walker in 2016. For reference, the typical Masters winner is beating the field by about 1.6 strokes by the week before they win the tournament. If Tiger is at 2020 levels, then by that standard he would be a possible winner but a long shot. If he is in competitive condition — his own stated mode for giving it a go — then he would be more than a fringe hope.

All of that considers general performance. It doesn't say anything about Woods’s institutional knowledge of Augusta. You don’t win five times on the same course (or even once, most likely) without expert familiarity with the terrain. Woods talks about navigating Amen Corner with the same ease a normal personal might exhibit while telling a houseguest where to find silverware. 

He has a deep understanding of the course’s famously fast greens, and he knows where to leave the ball to give himself the most favorable lie and angle of attack to those putting surfaces. (For good illustrations, consider his Sunday tee shot at the par-3 11th hole in 2011, a year he didn’t win, or the same at the par-3 16th hole in 2019.) Just in the past five years, a period in which he’s missed the Masters twice, he is third in the 2022 field in strokes gained per round there.

Tiger’s chances will hinge in large part on how hard he can hit the ball. His yardage and speed numbers at the December father-son tournament were a mixed bag, as he hit some shots with his classic power but appeared to struggle with consistency. Medical problems or not, Tiger has always hit the ball farther off the tee than the average tour pro, even as the tour has caught up to him for a range of reasons. (In the 2010s, his drives were about 10 yards longer than average, per Data Golf, while his edge was around 5 yards leading up to his latest absence.) 

Both the eye test and shot data attest that Augusta puts a premium on distance off the tee more than accuracy. The course will forgive Woods somewhat if he sprays some drives into the course’s pine straw rather than roping it down the fairway. It will be less sympathetic if he doesn’t mash it a long way. If Woods starts on Thursday, the best indicator of how back he is will be if the ball is flying off the face of his driver with its usual zip. 

It would break convention if Woods were to contend for a sixth jacket. He enters the week cold, and as manageable as the decline might have been, his game was on the wane even before a life-altering car crash. He has every reason to view success as an injury-free loop around the course rather than being in the hunt for another championship. 

But when Woods is on this course, ordinary rules of engagement do not always apply. Twenty-one-year-olds are not supposed to win the Masters by 12 shots. A pitch from the left side of the 16th green to its classic Sunday hole location is not supposed to get close, let alone go in. Forty-three-year-olds with pages-long injury histories and no major wins in more than a decade are not supposed to mount Sunday charges and hold off Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele. 

Believing that Woods could make noise on this course does not require a rational case. But one exists for him to contend anyway. If he plays, he isn’t doing it for the novelty of it. 

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo.

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