Tiger Woods faded to the finish line on Sunday at the Genesis Invitational in his first PGA Tour start since the end of 2020. Woods closed his week with a 2-over 73 to end his tournament at 1 under and secure a top-50 finish on the leaderboard. His 73 was the seventh-worst final round score in the field at the time he finished.
Not all of it was bad for Woods, though. In fact, just getting through four rounds of golf has to be considered a victory on some level for somebody who only did that once throughout the entirety of 2022.
“It’s progress, headed in the right direction, yes,” said Woods. “It certainly was a little bit more difficult than I probably let on. My team has been fantastic in getting my body recovered day to day and getting me ready to play each and every day.
“That’s the hard part that I can’t simulate at home. Even if I played four days at home, it’s not the same as adrenaline, it’s not the same as the system being ramped up like that — the intensity, just the focus that it takes to play at this level. No matter how much — I’m very good at simulating that at home, but it’s just not the same as being out here and doing it.”
Tiger certainly had his moments, too. Three closing birdies on Thursday in front of Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy. A 67 on Saturday in Round 3 that was better than most of the top players in the world. Those were unexpectedly joyous moments, both for him and for the thousands who came to see him play at Riviera Country Club (not to mention everyone watching on TV). They were a callback to yesteryear and a time when they wouldn’t have been quite as astonishing.
Woods didn’t do anything tremendously all week, although his iron play and swing speed were both better than expected after such a long layoff (it had been seven months since he teed it up in a competitive golf tournament). He finished top 30 in the field in approach play and consistently hit 175-180 in ball speed with his driver off the tee (PGA Tour average is low 170s).
More important was his sheer presence. Woods in the field provided the Genesis even more prestige than was already implied by its status as one of the PGA Tour’s elevated events. It made Thursday feel like Sunday, and it made the cut line seem even more important than it normally does since Woods was on it.
Presence is the primary thing Woods has to offer at this point for a couple of reasons. Even though it was surprisingly impressive that he was able to walk and play all four rounds seemingly without massive issues, it’s still almost impossible for him to put in the practice work necessary to play at a level of consistency that will result in true competition. Whether his health improves and he’s able to put the hours of playing and walking that he would like or the additional tournaments he needs to stay sharp remains to be seen, although Woods himself has said several times that that’s improbable. That presents a problem when it comes to his ability to win.
“I’m very good at simulating that at home,” he said, “but it’s just not the same as being out here and doing it.”
And so what we’re left right now, and likely into the near future, is this: various glimpses of the historically great player he’s been for the last 25 years that make you believe something irrational could take place. We got that on Thursday, and then we got it again on Saturday. Those will simultaneously combine with a peek at a future version of Tiger that literally doesn’t have any swings left in the tank. Up and down. Down and up
He will be a man constantly trying to reconcile the logistics of his body with the desires of his heart. Somebody who intellectually knows that what he had is never truly coming back because his body and his mind are so weary of the chase, but whose identity is so intertwined with his competitive nature that he doesn’t know what else he would even do.
That might not be the best version of Tiger, but to me, it’s probably the most interesting.
Tiger didn’t dissuade the idea that he could perhaps tee it up again before the 2023 Masters, which he will presumably play, although he reiterated something he’s been adamant about: he’s unlikely to play more than five or six times in a year..
“Here’s the deal: Like I told you guys last year, I’m not going to play any more than probably the majors and maybe a couple more,” he said. “That’s it, that’s all my body will allow me to do. My back the way it is, all the surgeries I had on my back, my leg the way it is, I just can’t. That’s just going to be my future.
“So my intent last year was to play in all four majors, I got three of the four. Hopefully this year I can get all four and maybe sprinkle in a few here and there. But that’s it for the rest of my career. I know that and I understand that. That’s just my reality.”
If this week’s successful 2023 debut was any indication, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see him play Bay Hill in two weeks or the Players Championship in three. Whether that’s enough prep to have a real shot at Augusta remains to be seen, but it’s a far cry from where we thought he would be as recently as three weeks ago.