After more than a year out of competition on the PGA Tour while recovering from back surgery, Tiger Woods finally made his tournament return in December in what some might deem to be the biggest story of the year for golf.
Four rounds at the Hero World Challenge against a field of some of the world’s best players is a small sample size, but it’s just enough to speculate about what 2017 might look like for Tiger. Here are 10 questions that we have while waiting for word of Tiger’s 2017 schedule.
Is he back?
Yes – with a qualifier. We’re not talking about the old Tiger in his prime. That guy will probably never be back. We’re talking about the return of Tiger to competitive golf and being able to tee it up on Tour. When Tiger leads the field in birdies, which he did at the Hero World Challenge, putts like he did in your prime AND, just as important, walks off the course pain-free, that’s back in our book.
The renovated North Course at Torrey Pines
Where will be play next?
His only commitment thus far is to the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in LA, a tournament he hasn’t played since 2006 but to which his foundation now has a tie. That’s Feb. 13-19. Tour stops at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego and the Waste Management Open in Phoenix loom prior on the West Coast swing.
Tiger has a stellar track record at Torrey, where he won his last major in 2008, and has played Phoenix in the past as well. Is he ready to take on consecutive tournaments or will he choose one over the other? You’d think he wouldn’t pass up the comfort of Torrey, but there’s also a wild card in play: His agent has indicated foreign tournaments have come calling. It will be interesting to see what he chooses.
What might success look like for Tiger in 2017?
Playing and finishing tournaments, to start. Just doing that will be more than he did in his most recent tournament stints. Getting back into the groove and grind of the Tour will be accomplishment enough in the early. But if he can do that, then we start to ask …
Can he win? Can he win a major?
Merely playing is one thing. Contending is another, winning is something else and a winning a major is a meteoric leap from there, but if he would happen to put a jolt in a tournament early on (lead for a round? Finish top 10?) such talk will quickly stir.
His putting was stellar in the Bahamas and his swing speed measured up to Tour specs, however, he’s conceded his days of overpowering courses are over, which means he’ll lean more on course management and a strong short game. That formula reminds us a current Tour star: Jordan Spieth. That game plan nearly won Spieth the Grand Slam two years ago. If it worked for Jordan, it can work for Tiger, who historically is one of the best putters ever.
Why might fate favor him for a major in 2017?
Tiger’s winning track record has somewhat been amassed by piling up wins at a handful of courses (Torrey, Bay Hill, Augusta, etc.) Quail Hollow, where he won in 2007 and has three top-11 finishes, is considered a Tiger-friendly track and home to the 2017 PGA Championship. The British Open is at Royal Birkdale, where he contended in 1998. The U.S. Open is at first-time venue Erin Hills.
Could the Masters be his best chance?
See the previous reference to Jordan Spieth. A hot putter can master Augusta National, especially when there’s veteran savvy behind it. The only caveat is that Tiger hasn’t won in Augusta since the course was “Tiger-proofed” in 2006. Another factor is how tournament-ready to contend he can be by April. A better bet might be the British, which is later in the calendar year and has a better track record of producing random winners due to the factors of weather and the quirky breaks of links golf.
What’s the biggest obstacle to him being competitive again?
The Tour itself. This is the Tour Tiger wrought, where fitness, equipment, training and talent has never been better. To illustrate the depth and balance of the field, golf had four first-time major winners last year, when it was predicted a Big Four (Jordan, Rickie, Rory and Jason) would carry the year. It didn’t happen. Is there room for Tiger to get back in that mix? That’s a very tall order for a Woods far removed from his prime and now past age 40.
What would even a semi-competitive Tiger mean for the Tour?
Two words: Ratings. Buzz. His return tournament posted one of the highest ratings in the history of the Golf Channel. He still has the “it” factor and attracts eyeballs and galleries to the game like no one else. Having some of that back can only be good for the game. The pursuit of the major record is likely lost, but Sam Snead’s career wins record is still within reach. He needs four to tie Slammin’ Sam at 82. While a consolation prize give what was once possible for Woods, it’s not nothing.
Worst case: What if his back goes out again?
Oh, boy. Woods has admitted he contemplated retirement when his back woes were at their worst. You’d think a relapse would be competitive curtains, the only fate worse than a return of the short-game yips that plagued his last comeback but seem quieted for now.
Best case: What if it doesn’t – and it looks like he’s really BACK?
The dream scenario for the PGA Tour. Tiger stalking leaderboards and chasing championships again would put a serious second wind into the game and hopefully give it a much-needed boost in interest and participation. This is the Woods windfall many believe he delivered to the game in his prime and having a little of that back would be refreshing on several levels. A competitive mix of young lions and steely veterans would be also be a great one for the Tour and its fans.
Now that the Chicago Cubs have finally won the World Series again, you could say another major win for Woods is the biggest story left on-deck in sports. Can he deliver? The safe bet: the world will be watching if he does.