It's Sunday on the PGA Tour and Tiger Woods is wearing red - an encouraging sight. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Photo: Gregory Bull/AP
Photo: Gregory Bull/AP

Woods takes significant step toward Masters return

To begin the year, Tiger Woods opened at a 100-to-1 to win the Masters, a tournament he has been unable to play in three of the last four years. That’s plow-horse-in-the-Derby odds.

Ah, but let him emerge from the prison of back troubles, let him play a few rounds without spending the next month in traction and the odds shrink as the unreasonable expectations soar. Now, you can only get, at best, 20-1 on Woods winning a fifth Masters, according to the latest Vegas ciphering.

He’s not going to win the 2018 Masters, so save your money.

But just having Woods in the conversation will add another layer of pimento cheese to the proceedings in Augusta. Sure, the Masters has carried on fairly handsomely without him, but how is it ever a bad thing to have another player of importance out there among the azaleas? 

And the truth of it is, they have yet to make a player more important than Woods since he has gone into decline.     

Sunday, Woods finished his first real, full-field, four consecutive rounds since the summer of 2015. It was by any rational measure a success – making his first cut in 888 days, scoring unspectacularly, but consistently (72-71-70-72, 3 under), and never once leaving the course on a medevac helicopter.

It was the most meaningful 23rd-place finish in recent memory. A Woods comeback – and they number an easy half-dozen by now – is still more intriguing to watch than a lot of other players performing at their peaks. The golf world doesn’t require much to refocus on Woods – if he can stay out for four days and fog a mirror, that will get the game’s hopeful hype machinery running in the red.

As he may be again in April in Augusta, Woods this weekend was the sidebar that ate the leaderboard, stealing headlines from those in actual contention. We’re just a sucker for a good game’s-greatest-fighting-back-from-spinal-fusion story.

While his swing looked pain-free, Woods sprayed tee shots all over Southern California, and perhaps parts of Mexico, hitting only 17 of 56 fairways. He termed that “gross,” and should you possess a badge for this Masters, you may want to pack a hardhat.  

He displayed some difficulty carving in the kind of approach shots that would serve him well at Augusta (there was improvement Sunday), and finished the Farmers Insurance Open hitting 42 of 72 greens in regulation. What, you expected him to come back with a full head of hair and immaculate shot shaping?

But around the green, though, Woods’ play was revealing. Other comebacks have been marked by the kind of chunked chips that just kill you in the member-guest scramble. But at Torrey Pines, “His short game is probably as good or better than I ever remember it being,” said Brandt Snedeker, a Saturday playing partner.

Woods can always say he finished this tournament ahead of Rickie Fowler (missed cut), and world’s No. 2, Jon Rahm (2 under). And he beat Phil MIckelson (even), for old time’s sake.

It has been so long since Woods has been any kind of factor on the course that it is difficult to even fathom the possibility again. At this stage, just making a cut is a big accomplishment. All with Woods is relative now.

It remains that watching Woods scramble around like a salesman on commission is better than watching no Woods at all.

He’s 42, and the goal of winning the four additional majors that would elevate him to Jack Nicklaus status will go forever unmet.

Can he win just one more major? That remains extremely difficult to see from here. Still, a bit more visible today than it was just a week ago.  

We’ll watch every step between here and the Masters – he is next scheduled to play Riviera in mid-February. Because, to be clear, while we don’t need him there in Augusta, we should still very badly want him there. 

Tiger Woods played in the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego Thursday. It was his first official PGA Tour event in a year. Tiger is 42 years old now. He had fusion surgery on his lower back in April. Woods shot an even-par 72 in the first round.

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.