I know there’s one big question you have after what went down in the Bahamas this weekend. You try to extrapolate what one otherwise meaningless golf exhibition might mean in four months when things get real in Augusta, and wonder:
Hmmm, can Hideki Matsuyama become the first player from Asia to win the Masters?
Perhaps there is one other. But I almost hesitate to bring it up considering how many people seem to respond to the mere mention of Tiger Woods’ name with impatient cries of “move on,” “he’s so last decade,” or “the game will get by just fine without him.”
After 15 months away, trying to mend the back of a 75-year-old, Woods, 41 at month’s end, made his return to semi-competitive golf. That it occurred on the same island chain where 35 years ago a shot Muhammad Ali fought his last fight (losing to Trevor Berbick) is perhaps coincidence. Or perhaps we have discovered the island of misfit icons.
Let’s press ahead on the Woods front, secure in the knowledge that golf is a fundamentally better venue with him in it than absent.
And heaven knows the Masters, specifically, is, too. Yes, even that regal tournament.
The good news from Woods’ performance in something called the Hero World Challenge: He played 72 holes without the need of a spinal block or traction. This seemed to greatly hearten the commentators and other media on site to capture the comeback. Any sign of pain-free movement is greeted like a revival tent miracle.
The desperate longing belongs also to his peers. “We want our champion back,” Bubba Watson was quoted on ESPN.com earlier in the week.
Meanwhile, back in reality-based observation: Woods also finished 15th in a 17-player field (the exhibition won by a red-hot Matsuyama). His ability to make a golf ball dance was evident by his 24 birdies, best in the field. But the unevenness that had marked his play even before the back collapsed also was on display. His six double-bogeys – the last on his walk-off hole Sunday – led the field.
As heartening as it may have been to see Woods exploring the extremes of his game, once more dressed in his Sunday red and black, we also must recognize the nagging limitations he will be bringing back with him to the mainland.
His body is a booby trap, and can go off at any moment. That’s the problem when your number of surgeries threaten to surpass your number of major championships. And a back issue is a golfer’s most fickle and debilitating of ailments.
The questions that face Woods have been downgraded in steady stages.
First it was, can he beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships? (That ship sailed about the time his wife found another use for one of his clubs).
Then it was, can he add just one more major to his total of 14? (Have you seen some of these other guys playing now? They are the progeny of Tiger’s game, and have fully taken over from him).
Then it was, can he win again anywhere on Tour, having gone three years now without? (You must ask here if he can stand up to the stress of needed practice and a real schedule? Every indication of late is that will be problematic).
Finally, the most humble of questions, can he simply compete?
At least we were allowed that small share of optimism from his long weekend in the Bahamas. He was back on the stage again, owning it whether he was shooting 65 on Day Two or 76 on the final day.
As for Matsuyama’s Masters prognosis, I’ll admit that’s something I won’t seriously consider until the second Sunday of April.
For now, it is of far greater interest that with his showing in the Bahamas, it seems possible Woods might actually show up in Augusta. That’s all we ask at this point. He has been away two of the three years and the tournament has greatly missed its four-time champion.