Tigerwatch Augusta: a tradition unlike any other.
For the fourth consecutive year and fifth time since 2010, the buildup to the Masters Tournament includes a will-he-or-won’t-he saga regarding the four-time champion’s playing status.
If tradition holds, Tiger Woods will likely let us know one way or another the Friday before Masters Week. His last clue came on March 20 when he resurfaced publicly for the first time since his Feb. 2 withdrawal in Dubai to promote his book about his 1997 Masters victory.
“God, I hope so,” Woods told former NFL player Michael Strahan on Good Morning America when asked if he would tee it up in the Masters. “I’m trying. I’m trying everything to be able to get back and play. I love that event. It’s meant so much to me in my life. It’s the first major I ever played back in ’95 as a college student. It has so much history and meaning to me, I’d love to get back.”
He told USA Today: “I do have a chance. …. I just need to get to a point where I feel like I’m good enough, and I’m healthy enough to do it.”
Woods’ desire to compete in his favorite major has been at odds with his body for four years. He skipped the entire 2015-16 PGA Tour season recovering from multiple back surgeries.
When he returned in December in the Bahamas, he looked fit and healthy and led the limited field in total birdies with 24. But when he made his 2017 debut at Torrey Pines, he looked less confident and missed the cut. A week later in Dubai, he walked gingerly and withdrew after a birdie-free opening 77 citing back spasms. He pulled out of three planned starts since and his doctors suggested he not even sit down for an interview at Riviera.
“I need to get back physically,” he told Strahan. “I know that the mind is sharp. I just need to get the body willing to do it. That’s the hard part. Getting the prep time. I haven’t been able to get as much prep time in. Haven’t been able to train like I used to, practice like I used to. So it’s been hard.”
Woods’ April surprise has become a ritual more often than not since his scandal-imposed self-exile in 2009. He returned from a four-month leave of absence at Augusta National in 2010, finishing tied for fourth. He had announced his intended return in mid-March.
“After a long and necessary time away from the game, I feel like I’m ready to start my season at Augusta,” he said then.
Life returned to normal for the next three years, with Woods adding a couple more ties for fourth at the Masters in 2011 and ’13 after playing his usual pre-Masters schedule.
Not knowing has been the new normal ever since. In 2014, he withdrew after 13 holes in the final round of the Honda Classic citing lower back spasms. On the eve of Masters Week he announced that he underwent microdisectomy surgery on his back and didn’t play for four months.
“After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done,” he said then.
A year later, Woods had new issues to deal with as he developed chipping yips trying to implement a new swing change. That prompted another nine-week leave of absence after he withdrew from Torrey Pines. His plane was spotted twice in Augusta the week before the 2015 Masters and he officially announced his return the Friday before, ultimately tying for 17th.
“I’m playing in the Masters,” his statement read two years ago. “It’s obviously very important to me, and I want to be there. I’ve worked a lot on my game and I’m looking forward to competing. I’m excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone’s support.”
His excitement and health didn’t last. Woods shut his game down after a tie for 10th at Greensboro in August 2015 and sat out the entire 2015-16 season recovering from more back surgeries. After much speculation about his Masters status last April, he once again released an announcement the Friday before.
“After assessing the present condition of my back, and consulting with my medical team, I’ve decided it’s prudent to miss this year’s Masters,” he said.
The speculation train has been rolling again this year with Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg dismissing a report during Bay Hill week that his client was “doubtful” to play Augusta.
“We’re not in a situation to even talk about playing in the Masters now,” Steinberg said. “He’s gotten treatments and is progressing and hoping he can do it. There’s not been a decision one way or the other. I couldn’t give you a fair assessment, but to say it’s doubtful is an absolutely inaccurate statement.”
When Woods expressed his regrets at skipping the Arnold Palmer Invitational that he’s won eight times, he wouldn’t commit to the Masters.
“Presently, I have no timetable for my return to golf, but my treatments are continuing and going well,” his statement said.
He told USA Today a week later that he would definitely attend the Champions Dinner but hopes his trip to Augusta lasts beyond Tuesday.
“I’ve been a part of so many Masters over the course of my career, I know exactly what it takes to get ready for that event,” he said. “Now it’s my job to go out there and get ready. I hope I can. … It’s so much easier coming back for this particular event because I know the golf course.”
His peers have wondered how much longer the 41-year-old Woods will want to keep putting up with his repeated rehabilitation and not playing up to the standards that won him 14 majors and 79 PGA Tour events.
“I’ll tell you right now – If he doesn’t play Augusta, then it’s over,” said tour pro Pat Perez on his radio show in February.
“If he gets to Augusta and he’s limping away and it’s just not going to plan and playing golf is hard work, who knows what might happen then?” said CBS analyst Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters winner. “There might be another press conference there of a different kind. This is a really important time in Tiger’s life. If he wants to stay a golfer he’s got to commit and he’s got to be rewarded. Otherwise, why would he want to put himself through this? He was oh-so dominant and he doesn’t want to just be a golfer, I don’t believe.”
Woods admits he has other priorities in his life with his daughter Sam, 9, and son Charlie, 8.
“My priorities have changed a lot,” he said. “My kids now dominate my life, and I think that’s a good thing.”