Should Tiger Woods fight at the 2018 Masters?
This question has dominated my conversations about golf both in and out of the sport for the past two months. It is the rare study that has crossover appeal between the golf super nerd and the average consumer of golf media. The reason for this appeal is obvious, and its answer to why Woods will hold the entire sports hostage over the next week seems to be even more so.
Where it starts is with wondering if, will fight at Augusta National this year.
Here’s a tip: He always claims. When questions about Tiger get dark, I always go back to 2015.and not even thinking about golf, I went back to 2015. When people show me clips of chips and tops and scores in the 80s, I went back to 2015.
What happened in 2015? Tiger shot an 82 in the second round of the Phoenix Open in February and looked incompetent around the greens. A week later, he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open with insufficient gluten. About 60 days after that, he shot a 68 in the third round of the Masters to get into the third-to-last pairing Sunday with a guy named Rory McIlroy.
Tiger, who had not played in two months, rose in Augusta. What sorcery. What a world. He shot mildly with a 73 on Sunday while Jordan Spieth was crowned, but the level of difficulty that Woods overcame that week has been an anchor for me in all of this. He is so good at golf and on this course that he proved that a shell of itself – a skeleton really – could even get in the mix.
And today? He is without a doubt a top 10 golfer on the PGA Tour right now. Woods ranks No. 7 on the strokes obtained. Golfers in front of him are Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia, Justin rose, Paul Casey and Alex Noren. Ball does not lie, as they say, and Tiger’s Bridgestone tells a tale of greatness at the moment.
He is good in 2018, not because we want him to be good, or because he used to be good, or because he has red and black on, and we identify these colors as being good. He is good in 2018 because he is good. Period. Full stop.
So if you want to place why Woods is not fighting for Augusta, bow not only to his current form, but also his history. In other words, to construct a scenario where Tiger is not fighting for Augusta, you have to do some pretty heavy statistical gymnastics. You have to somehow reveal that golfers who have traditionally participated in events at the top of their games and have a historically strong past do not play well at these events.
That, of course, can happen in this case. Woods might miss the cut or worse. But there is no empirical data to suggest that this is true, so all you have left is a perception or a feeling.
As for why this is so compelling, yes, that part is pretty easy.
The comeback is often more fascinating – if not better – than the first round. Look, I’ve seen “Caddyshack II.” The sequel is not always as good as the original (in fact, it is rare), but when certain factors agree, the sequel can sometimes be more fascinating. Tiger has fallen into a perfect spot where his end of his prime was bound by injury and scandal, but he jumped back before being washed. (I think this is where I remind you that only two people have a faster club head speed than Tiger on the PGA Tour this year.) Unlike Michael Jordan with the Wizards, he returns with some courage from his former self , which is still present.
It will not be one thing every week and it will not be as often as we hope. Whatever you think of Tiger Woods, it’s hard not to be compelled by a final act of this completely hero-turned-tragic character and how many performances he still has left in mind. He may never win again and that may not matter. If we as a society have proven anything, it is that we love youth in sports, but love to remember what youth used to be even more.
The contrast is great between Woods and his new enemies. An aging icon must have foils, and Woods has the biggest: Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, just to name a few. I’m transfixed by the idea of a Tiger JT final pairing on Sunday or a Tiger Rory shootout late on the second nine.
This has been a constant trope throughout this year, so I probably do not need to elaborate much on it, but I will leave you with the words of Ben Crane during the Valspar Championship a few weeks ago. He said it better than I could anyway.
Since becoming a pro in 1996, Tiger has 13 top 10s in this tournament in 18 appearances in total. I fully expect these numbers to be 14 and 19 this time next week. The questions will primarily be whether he again (and most unlikely!) Can scale the mountain and perhaps more curious who will climb it with him.