Will he or won’t he?
At the time of writing, Tiger Woods has still not made a decision—at least not publicly—as to whether he’ll play in the Masters next week. There is a new World No. 1, a boatload of juicy storylines leading into the year’s first men’s major, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur—and yet all anyone seems to care about is what Tiger will do.
That we’ve even reached this point is, of course, patently insane. It was less than 14 months ago that Woods lost control of a speeding SUV, sent it tumbling over a hillside and nearly had his right leg amputated. The post-crash images suggested a life-threatening catastrophe; speculating on his golf future in those first moments bordered on crass. He was lucky to be alive.
Once it became clear that Woods would retain his ability to walk—the official diagnosis: comminuted open fractures to both the tibia and fibula in his right leg as well as extensive damage to the soft tissue and nerves around the ankle—two questions emerged: First, would he have the desire to continue playing? He’d already completed arguably the greatest comeback in our sport’s history, winning the Masters with a fused back. Would he be willing to tolerate the pain? To put in the hours? Would he be patient and diligent enough to do it all over again?
Of course he would. He’s Tiger Woods, the most singularly-minded competitor in golf history. Competition is all he’s ever known. Anyone who thought Woods would simply rehab enough to where he could walk, show up at a few tournaments as a figurehead and smile for the cameras made the mistake of assuming Woods thinks like a normal person. One of the first memories Tiger has after the crash is asking his best pal/right-hand man, Rob McNamara, to throw him objects to see if he still had his hands. He caught them. He still has his hands.
The desire, then, never wavered. But would it be physically possible? Yes, apparently. Woods hasn’t just had multiple surgeries to the leg; he’s had multiple waves of multiple surgeries. Relieving swelling, inserting hardware, rebuilding the leg, taking out hardware. The exact number of procedures is unknown; but given the fact he’d already had 10 before the crash, perhaps his lifelong operation count is nearing 20. He returned home to South Florida nearly a month after the accident and began rehabbing in silence, away from the cameras, as is his preference.
The first significant update we received from Woods came in November, when he posted a three-second swing video to social media captioned “making progress.” This immediately became the second biggest golf story of the year, trailing only the accident. A few weeks later, he tempered expectations by telling Golf Digest his days as a full-time tour player were over and that he is return would be only on a limited basis. This became the third biggest golf story of the year, trailing only the swing video and the accident. Any caution went out the window when he committed to playing with his son in the PNC Challenge, and the hype train raced out of the station when he flashed a PGA Tour-caliber game from 150 yards and in. All attention then shifted to the Masters. In the meantime, Woods won the inaugural Player Impact Program and its $8 million first prize without hitting a single competitive shot all year. It’s not just that Woods is still the needle; given the downright Shakespearean scale of this latest comeback, it’s as if the needle is sharper than ever.
Until this week, however, Augusta still seemed a pipe dream. At the Genesis Invitational in February, Woods emphasized the difference between playing a scramble, in a cart, on a dead-flat course in Florida with no rough, and the prospect of competing against the best players in the world at Augusta National. He told us he was still a long way away from playing. But with each passing day that Woods didn’t officially withdraw from the tournament he’s won five times, talks grew louder. Rumors swirled. Videos of him playing his home course in competition mode upped the tempo. Then his plane was tracked en route to a small city on the Georgia/South Carolina border and suddenly, this became a realistic possibility.
Again, Woods could still decide against playing next week. Perhaps Tuesday’s practice round sent his leg into screaming pain. The internet doesn’t seem to be buying it, nor do the oddsmakers or the gamblers. According to the books, Woods is now overwhelmingly favored to tee it up in the year’s first major, and no player has received more bets to win the Masters. Not to play; to win.
The anticipation has reached comical levels, even by Tiger standards. His injury history has put the sporting public in this position more than a few times: wondering whether Tiger Woods will play a tournament or not. But it’s never quite reached this level before.
Whether Woods plays in six days or not aside, it’s clear that his return is imminent. It’s equally clear that a 46-year-old man with a fused back and a surgically rebuilt right leg, who has not played in a tournament in more than 16 months, retains an airtight stranglehold over this sport. There will come a time when golf moves on from Tiger Woods. It’s just not now.