Monday, May 23, 2022

Tiger Woods plans to return at 2022 Masters: Five-time champion hopes to play first event in 17 months

Tiger Woods is planning to make his triumphant return to golf as part of the 2022 Masters field. Woods said as much Tuesday during his official press conference at Augusta National with just two days to go until the first round begins — this after several days of practice at Augusta, including a trip with his son, Charlie, and Justin Thomas last week.

“As of right now, I feel like I am going to play. As of right now. I’m going to play nine more holes [Wednesday],” said Woods, who noted that he will make his final evaluation at that time.

Woods has looked fit and healthy all week, both in the practice area and on the course. Every report — including those from his peers — has been encouraging in terms of the way he is carrying himself on the course he has owned for the last 25 years.

Hysteria has perhaps never been higher for a Woods return, and deservedly so considering he hasn’t played an official event in 17 months and is just 14 months removed from a car accident that nearly took his right leg. 

There was a lot to work through this week for Woods, which is likely why he said Sunday he would be a “game-time decision” and did not commit until the week of the actual event. Not only does Tiger need his swing to be in order, but his back — that has incurred nearly a half-dozen surgeries — and right leg (that hasn’t endured four rounds of tournament play in nearly two years) will have to hold up under the most intense pressure imaginable.

All of this is not to mention weather forecasts call for cold, wet and windy conditions through the week at Augusta.

“Walking’s the hard part. This is not an easy walk to begin with, and given the condition my leg is in, it’s even more difficult,” he said. “Seventy-two holes is a long road. It’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge I’m up for.”

The first hint that Woods might return at the Masters came at the end of 2021 when Woods was filmed hitting balls at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, an event at which he is the host. That happened to be his first public appearance and the first time he was asked any questions about what happened in February. Throughout that week, he insisted that he was a long way from playing competitive golf again, but videos from the driving range told the story of somebody whose swing still looked terrific.

Then we saw that swing live in December when Woods played the PNC Championship with his son and nearly won the tournament. It was a laid-back event on an easy course, but Woods still hit some truly eye-popping shots. All along, he has been adamant that his return to professional golf was not imminent.

Tiger purposefully set expectations in the dirt for everyone involved, and now he has leaped over them.

Prior to the car accident in February 2021, Woods underwent an additional back surgery at the beginning of that year — his first back surgery after his spine was fused together — so his recovery period has been doubly difficult over the last 15 months.

“I’m very lucky, very lucky,” said Woods in February at the Genesis Invitational. “As a lot of you guys know, I didn’t know if I was going to have the right leg or not. So, to be able to have my right leg still here, it’s huge. I still have a lot of issues with it, but it’s mine, and I’m very thankful for that. Thankful for all the surgeons and doctors and nurses that, for all the countless surgeries that we went through and countless rehabs and the PT sessions are brutal, but it’s still mine and I’m very thankful for that.”

There is little chance that Tiger is going to be competitive at this year’s Masters — he said recently that he had to work to build up to that win in 2019 — but he’s wise enough and smart enough at Augusta that making the cut and playing the weekend is not out of the question. It would be quite a turn of events for somebody who we barely saw in 2021.

It would also not be out of the ordinary for Woods at Augusta. In 21 events as a professional, he’s made all 21 cuts, finished in the top 10 an extraordinary 14 times and won five green jackets, the most recent of which coincided with his last April trip to Augusta back in 2019 when he defeated Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka for the 15th and most recent major championship of his career.

“It’s a different challenge, but my back surgeries that I’ve had before and the stuff I’ve had to play through — even going back to the U.S. Open when I was a little bit busted — those are all times that I can draw upon where I was successful where I’ve blocked things out and focused on what I need to focus on,” he said.

Woods insists that his mind is focused on winning this week, not simply making an appearance.

“I love competing. If I feel like I can compete at the highest level, I’m going to,” Woods said Tuesday. “… I don’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it. There will be a day when it won’t happen, and I’ll know when that is.”

As such, Tiger stepping up to the No. 1 tee box on Thursday will be a delight to see and a celebratory moment both for him and for the sport.

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