Only minutes had to pass after Friday’s confirmation of Tiger Woods making his return to the frontline at the Masters before the statistics spilled out, explaining why this would inevitably be a pointless endeavour.
On Thursday, when Woods takes to the 1st tee at Augusta National as not so much the centre of attention as the focus of the golfing world once again, 572 days will have passed since he finished a PGA Tour event under par. He has never before played a major as a professional when ranked outside the world’s top 100: current standing, 104. After a highly successful 2013, during which Woods won five times, the narrative has been of non-appearances, missed cuts and withdrawals. He has only played 47 holes of competitive golf this year.
Time away from the game does not automatically amount to improvement, as illustrated by Woods returning his worst scores as a professional at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He had not been seen for more than 50 days before that.
A decade ago, nobody could have even wildly imagined that Woods, once the dominant force in his sport, would be left with this one final chance to claim a Green Jacket in his 30s. He has not won any major at all since the age of 32. This would be the most unlikely, most stunning glory of all, even taking into account the various physical ailments which provided the backdrop to earlier triumphs. All levels of logic and evidence tell us Woods cannot win. Even the historical success that he would commonly draw upon is edging further into the distant past.
And yet, for all those who poke fun at Woods (pictured right) for deciding to reappear in Georgia after taking an indefinite break to re-evaluate – and hopefully drastically improve – his game, the Masters is a fine place for that very choice.
Woods still transcends sport, still captures wider attentions, still registers in the public consciousness more than any other player. Even his many detractors will find Woods compelling viewing, shot by shot, from Thursday.
Woods himself is due credit for a bold choice to take his place in this so public of platforms. The soft option would have been to extend his sabbatical.
The attention on his every move will be quite incredible this week, a tough environment for a player who has displayed such basic flaws in recent times. If he struggles, and there has to be every chance that he will, the embarrassment and pain for Woods will be acute. Simply by basic design, Augusta National is an unforgiving environment. Woods no longer hits the ball further than anybody else or has a short game better than anybody else: both were key aspects of his rapid rise to prominence.
Two questions pose the biggest intrigue here: why has Woods opted to return now? What ambitions does he have for this, the 79th Masters?
The issue of responsibility to the game, or even sponsors, has never seemed to weigh heavily on Woods’s mind. Instead, there may be a realisation that a continued absence from the top level and failure to compete against the best represents gradual retirement in all-but name.
His aspiration has always been straightforward, whatever the environment: to win. Making up the numbers has never been an even remotely appealing option. In his book, which chronicles his period coaching Woods, Hank Haney recalls the occasion in which the golfer’s former wife, Elin Nordegren, was exuberant in her victory celebrations. “Honey,” said Woods sharply, “this [winning] is what we do.”
If that has changed, even because of mitigating circumstances and the emergence of a new golfing generation, it would represent quite a change of mindset. When Woods takes to the Augusta National media centre on Wednesday lunchtime, he is certain to be asked whether he thinks he can win. The reality is that surviving for the weekend, never mind competing, would be an achievement but Woods may not see things that way. On the other hand, he isn’t delusional or stupid; he should be well aware of his own capabilities.
Typically, the strongest endorsement of Woods’s prospects come from fellow players. That is a smart move, clearly, given the dangers of publicly writing off a competitor. Even Phil Mickelson, who has never exactly been a Woods ally, spoke in positive terms upon hearing Masters confirmation. “It is a tough tournament to miss,” Mickelson said. “The Masters is the tournament we dream of as a kid.
“I just don’t think anybody would miss it if they were in it, if they were physically able to play. And he has had such a good short game and such a great game throughout his career, I think it’s going to be an easy fix. I think his game will be sharp.”
When seeking inspiration, maybe Woods will glance once again towards Jack Nicklaus. Golf’s record major winner claimed the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46, an incredible feat rounded off by a closing round of 65. Nicklaus was hardly facing timid opposition.
More than ever before, Woods has cause not to think about the remainder of the field. Even if, it must be recognised, his involvement is an inevitable boost to those seeking a low-key buildup. Barring disaster, which cannot be ruled out, there is also an unquestionable benefit to the event.
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