Sports

Tiger Woods Is Playing With House Money Now

He’s still pushing to win again. But really, this is all gravy.

Tiger swinging during the 11th hole
Woods on the 11th hole during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, in Augusta, Georgia. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Tiger Woods did not win the Masters. He didn’t get close, though he was within arm’s reach of contention after his first round and made the cut with breathing room at the end of his second. He had his highest-scoring Masters round ever on Saturday—a 6-over-par 78, including a bunch of three-putts and an ignominious four-putt—and faded more on Sunday, finishing his return tournament after a 13-month absence at 13 over for the week and in 47th place.

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But this was a singular event in Tiger’s unparalleled career. The best illustration came after he missed his birdie putt and holed out for par on the 18th hole, his 72nd of the week at Augusta National Golf Club. As a CBS camera tracked his walk from the green to the clubhouse, Tiger was smiling and at moments almost giggling as he took in the roars from his adoring Augusta audience, just as he had at a few other moments during his round. Woods is not typically a man who has time for grins while he sits 22 shots off the lead at a tournament he’s won five times, but he seemed to feel a bit of what almost everyone watching him felt: That it was amazing that he was here at all a year removed from a post–car crash hospital bed, that it was even more incredible that he had put together a respectable first two rounds and made the cut, and that this all felt more like a win than any nonwin could in the whole annals of Tiger.

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It speaks to who Woods is that he was the story this week, even as two of the world’s best current players (world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and No. 6 Cameron Smith) ran at each other in the final Sunday pairing with a green jacket on the line. That is just how it goes in professional golf. As world No. 29 Will Zalatoris put it, “People always talk about how he moves the needle, but he is the needle.” Especially now. Scheffler and Smith will make due with being the secondary attraction on the day they each had a chance to win the tournament of their lives. (As this story went to press, Scheffler was poised to be the guy wearing the sportcoat.)

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The backward lens on Tiger’s return to competitive golf is simple enough: He was absurdly good given the circumstances of his arrival, but not nearly good enough to win the tournament with which he is most associated. Above all, it ruled that he was present. The forward lens, which is also worth considering with an athlete as robotically driven as Woods, is murkier. It would be rational if Tiger is now done contending to win the sport’s biggest tournaments. But this week showed that to be a lot less than a foregone conclusion, and if you were looking for hints that Tiger could level one last boom in his major career, you found some without breaking a sweat. If there were any doubt that he would keep pushing, when his round ended he told CBS, “I’ve got some work to do, and I’m looking forward to it.”

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Maybe he’ll win again, and maybe he won’t. Either way, at this point, consider all of it to be gravy, because Tiger already proved something essential: You can still watch him and feel uncapped possibility. That has always been a huge part of Tiger’s mystique, and even a 13-over week didn’t pierce it.

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This tournament showed two other things about where Tiger’s game is in April 2022. The first is that, when everything clicks, he remains a force. He hit a number of powerful, obscenely skilled golf shots in this tournament, mostly clustered during the first two days. He flashed his precision iron game on a Thursday tee shot at the par-3 sixth hole and a Friday approach at the par-4 tenth, among other shots. He showed he could still think his way around a course with the best of them, like when he managed a par from the forest on Augusta’s seventh hole in his opening round. From there, he hit a devilish low cut that bent around the trees and settled right in front of a front bunker, just where he wanted to leave it, and then pitched it close before flushing his putt. He averaged 290 yards with his driver, per Data Golf, a middling figure but longer than plenty of younger players near the top of the world ranking. He hit a few mammoths in there. In every facet of Tiger’s game, there were remnants of the guy you’re used to watching. There’s no overstating how silly that is, given the extended layoff and rehabilitation that led up to his start.

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The other thing the 2022 Masters emphasized is how hard it is for everything to click at once for a 46-year-old golfer whose body has been broken down and come back together time and again. Tiger’s post-round medical routine sounded hellish, which is another way of saying it’s no fun to submerge yourself in ice to hold down swelling after walking 18 holes at the famously hilly Augusta. After his shockingly bad putting effort on Saturday ruined his last chances of contention, he talked about how hard it was to find his feel on the greens—something that does not get easier with a lack of repetition, even when a player knows a course like Tiger knows Augusta. He finished near the bottom of the field in strokes gained per round putting (minus 1.3). That would be the last thing you’d expect Tiger to do poorly on this course. On another hand, his ball-striking was fine aside from a lousy driving day on Thursday. If he sorts out his putting in future tournaments—a good bet, you’d think—he could make some charges.

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The challenge of getting in sync is real for every player, not just older ones with long injury histories. The PGA Tour schedule is long, and the key to winning majors is to play well enough in the events leading up to them to peak at the right times, but not so much that the body degrades. Tiger has made clear that his days of playing a regular schedule are over. He talked on Saturday about the incredible run Scheffler has been on over the past two months and change, a period in which he’s won three events against some of the most packed fields in professional golf. “We all wish we had that two-, three-month window when we get hot, and hopefully majors fall somewhere along in that window. We take care of it in those windows,” Woods said. With tons of recent great play, Scheffler is in that window.

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Tiger may not have the chance to build up to those opportunities, given the constraints his body imposes. Those limits were clear on Sunday, as he walked haltingly near the end of his round. Most golfers will never be able to turn it on for occasional mega-events without putting in lots of rounds during the year to build up their games. Tiger has made a career out of defying all reasonable context, though. Given where he has come from, he is the only player who doesn’t even need to pull it off to be the biggest story in any event he enters, or to be considered a success in one of the worst scoring tournaments of his career. The 2022 Masters reinforced Tiger’s limitations, certainly. But more than that, they were the latest validation of professional golf’s defining truth for the past 25 years: Even now, there is nobody like him.

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