Michaux: Woods Watch on again
Tiger Watch has become another Masters Tournament tradition unlike any other.
What used to be a exercise in following HOW Tiger Woods played, however, has devolved into monitoring IF he’ll play.
For the second consecutive year, April approaches with no word on whether or not Woods will compete in the major that first defined his greatness in 1997.
In 2014, it was back surgery that kept the four-time Augusta National winner from playing the Masters for the first time in 20 years. Woods announced on April 1 – the Tuesday before tournament week – that he’d undergone microdisectomy surgery on his lower back to repair damage that had sidelined him since competing at Doral.
In 2015, it is something far more mysterious that has derailed Woods’ career since he withdrew after 11 holes at Torrey Pines on Feb. 5 – his inability to play golf up to PGA Tour standards. Woods has twice already extended his self-imposed benching by skipping events at PGA National and Bay Hill.
“My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf,” Woods said in February when he announced his indefinite leave of absence to “work” on his game. “Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.”
Woods obviously isn’t ready yet. He did not enter the upcoming Shell Houston Open as a tune-up event. His close friend Notah Begay labeled his chances of playing Augusta “50/50” this week, which he elevated from “maybe 1-in-10” a few weeks earlier.
“I hope to be ready for the Masters, and I will continue to work hard preparing for Augusta,” Woods said after announcing he would not play at Bay Hill.
If Woods plays Augusta it will be his first competitive round since Feb. 5. It would be his longest layoff before a major since 2010, when he finished tied for fourth at the Masters after returning from a five-month scandal-induced sabbatical.
That was a very different Woods at age 34, however, having won seven times in 2009 including his last start at the Australian Masters in November. He was still ranked No. 1 in the world.
This 39-year-old version of Woods is a mess physically and mentally. He’s only played 47 holes in 2015, and none of them were very good as he was 15-over par. That included a career-worst 82 in the second round in Phoenix, where he missed 18 greens in two days and got up-and-down only three times with a shockingly bad short-game display that first drew horrified gasps in his comeback event at the Hero World Challenge in December.
Woods will fall out of the top 100 on Monday for the first time since before he won the first of his 79 PGA Tour victories in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational. He has only played in 10 tournaments since the start of 2014, completing only three of them and finishing better than 69th only once.
So will he play in Augusta or be a healthy scratch? Well, Nike thinks enough of his chances to release a preview of the scripted clothes Woods would be wearing – optimistically presenting four days of attire including red shoes to match his “university red” shirt on Sunday.
There is no shortage of opinion on what Woods should do.
“If he’s not injured, how would he miss this?” Masters champion Bubba Watson said this week on CBS This Morning.
The concern is that leaping headfirst into a Masters return might be foolish and further erode his sagging confidence if he chunks it around a course on which he’s finished outside the top six only once in the previous 10 years.
Golf Magazine polled its top 100 golf instructors asking if they would advise Woods to play the Masters, and 45 percent said “No” compared to 35 percent saying “Yes.”
“Could be the end of his career if he yips at the Masters,” said one. “You can’t win if you don’t enter,” chimed in another.
While several players desperately seek to earn late invitations to Augusta – potentially pushing the qualifying field size to 100 for the first time in 49 years – Woods is one of five players already qualified whose status remains uncertain just a week before the practice rounds start.
Kevin Stadler – the son of 1982 Masters champion Craig Stadler – hasn’t played since withdrawing at Kapalua with a broken bone in his left wrist. Stadler tied for eighth in his Augusta debut last year. A representative at his management agency said Friday that Stadler hasn’t made a decision about playing the Masters yet.
A probable starter is Steve Stricker, who is semi-retired from tour golf and hasn’t played since Woods’ tournament at Isleworth in early December. Stricker underwent back surgery shortly before Christmas, and like Woods has been working himself back into playing shape out of the public eye. Asked about his return plans, Stricker tweeted on March 15 “Not quite sure yet. Might be The Masters,” although he mentioned “great prep for @TheMasters” on Friday.
Brooks Koepka (rib) and Graham McDowell (ankle) withdrew from Bay Hill and Texas, respectively, hoping to stay healthy enough to tee it up at Augusta.
Unlike other tournaments with alternate lists, there is no deadline protocol for players to commit to playing the Masters. Formal invitations request an RSVP, but all players have to do is show up and register before Thursday’s first-round tee time.
Courtesy, however, dictates giving the club an advance heads-up so it can prepare. So word is likely to come out of Jupiter, Fla., in the next few days indicating whether or not Woods will try to end a 10-year victory drought at the Masters.
Odds are that even if he halts his absentee run at one, his Masters winless streak will extend to 11.