News & Opinion

Will 2020 Masters be Tiger Woods’ last major as a reigning champion?

Tiger Woods wins 2019 Masters
In the 19 months since his 2019 Masters victory, Tiger Woods has shown few flashes of the form that racked up a PGA Tour record-tying 82 victories.

Augusta National is no place to polish a dull game, even for someone who has won there 5 times, so you can’t help but wonder

You can’t help but wonder, when it comes to Tiger Woods. No figure in our lifetime has known higher heights and lower lows. Only Cher has more comebacks.

The scope is remarkable, and wondering if it has more chapters or is reaching a conclusion is only natural. On the golf landscape, it’s like a bodily function. It’s what keeps us regular.

So, when you look at the recent past and you consider the immediate future, you can’t help but wonder about Woods. He is now some 1½ years removed from his last monumental moment, the improbable Masters win

Of course, he also won the no-cut Zozo Championship in Japan, getting an 82nd career victory on the PGA Tour to tie a Sam Snead record previously considered unreachable. But fast forward to this fall, and the Zozo tournament re-located to Sherwood Country Club in California. 

Sherwood is a certified Woods stomping ground. In 12 starts at the Hero World Challenge there, he had five wins and five runners-up. He owned the place – lock, stock and bunkers. 

And yet, despite the friendly confines, Woods didn’t even play so-so in the Zozo. He finished 72nd in a field of 77, continuing a descent in which he has placed no better than 37th in his last seven PGA Tour events. Joining Woods in the backseat at Sherwood was his “adversary,” Phil Mickelson. “Lefty” pulled into the station 76th. He has two top-10s in his last 35 starts entering this week’s Houston Open. Mickelson turned 50 in June, and Woods will turn 45 in December. 

Nothing they can do about that; not a club in the bag can lower those scores. That said, you can’t help but wonder, looking back on that Sunday. Were you watching Willie Mays play center field for the Mets, Steve Carlton toe the slab for the Twins?

In contrast to all their glorious Sundays past, nothing was on the line for Woods and Mickelson on Zozo Sunday. There were no galleries, no screams, no memories to make. With their 126 career PGA Tour wins alongside, Woods and Mickelson had Adam Long in their group. Long, a one-time PGA Tour winner, shot 69, Woods 74, Mickelson 78.  

You can’t help but wonder whether Mickelson will book more flights on the Champions Tour going forward. After all, he has made two surprise visits to Second City, landing in the winner’s circle both times. Hey, it’s hell getting old, no question. But it’s profitable.

Now we prepare to head next week to Augusta National, where a “tradition unlike any other” has turned into “glory’s last shot.” And you can’t help but wonder whether Woods will be playing his last major as a reigning champion. 

The question isn’t entirely skill-based. Woods rarely plays these days without some type of physical nag. Despite the pedestrian performance at Sherwood, he won’t be playing this week at the Houston Open. When he tees it up at Augusta, it will be only his third start in 12 weeks. 

Harry Vardon used to say, “Don’t play too much golf. Two rounds a day is plenty.” The assumption is that you physically are able to do so. With all of his injuries, surgeries and “deactivated” glutes, and with advancing age exacerbating the issues, Woods clearly cannot physically push the envelope. One suspects some days that he barely can open it. 

Once a Ferrari, he is now a bit more like your old Ford Pinto: still running, but the oil leaks and the body is rusting.

As Vardon’s suggestion implies, the skills of golf do not reward neglect, and it seems hard to imagine Woods might raise his game to a more competitive level without more competitive reps. A trip to the batting cage won’t do it.

But there it is again, the defining ingredient where Woods is concerned: the unimaginable. He has produced it over and over. 

“T-dub” always might be a threat at the Masters, where – relatively speaking – the playing field never changes. Others have demonstrated that success begets success there, and familiarity can be a fountain of youth. Remember, Jack Nicklaus tied for sixth in 1998 at age 58. It was his 22nd top-10, including six victories, at Augusta in a span of 38 years.

And remember that Woods was floundering in April 2015, before he arrived at Augusta. He was struggling with short-game yips, hadn’t played in two months and looked to be on life support. He then finished T-17 at the Masters, with middle rounds of 69-68. That was before last year’s stunning green-jacket revival. That said, Augusta National is not a good walk spoiled; it’s not a good walk, period. It can be a physically demanding four days.

So, you can’t help but wonder. It’s only natural. Time is coming for Tiger Woods, as it comes for all of us. When it finally gains traction, there will be no bounce back … or will there?

You can’t help but wonder.

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