Is Tiger Woods going to contend at the 2018 Masters?
That question has dominated my conversations about golf both in and outside of the sport over the last two months. It is the rare inquiry that has crossover appeal between the golf super nerd and the mainstream consumer of golf media. The reason for this appeal is obvious, and its answer as to why Woods will hold all of sports hostage over the next week seems to be even more so.
Where it starts is with one wondering whether, will contend at Augusta National this year.
Here's a hint: He always contends. When questions about Tiger turn dark, I always go back to 2015.and wasn't even thinking about golf, I went back to 2015. When people show me clips of the chips and the tops and the scores in the 80s, I went back to 2015.
What happened in 2015? Tiger shot an 82 in the second round of the Phoenix Open in February and looked inept around the greens. A week later, he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open with inadequate glutes. Roughly 60 days after that, he shot a 68 in the third round of the Masters to get into the third-to-last pairing on Sunday with a guy named Rory McIlroy.
Tiger, who hadn't played in two months, surged at Augusta. What sorcery. What a world. He mildly ejected with a 73 on Sunday while Jordan Spieth was coronated, but the degree of difficulty which Woods overcame that week has been an anchor for me in all of this. He is so good at golf and at this course that he proved a shell of himself -- a skeleton, really -- could even get in the mix.
And today? He's arguably a top 10 golfer on the PGA Tour right now. Woods ranks No. 7 on the in strokes gained. The golfers ahead of him are Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Alex Noren. Ball don't lie, as they say, and Tiger's Bridgestone is telling a tale of in-the-moment greatness.
He is good in 2018 not because we want him to be good or because he used to be good or because he wears red and black and we identify those colors with being good. He is good in 2018 because he is good. Period. Full stop.
So if you want to posit why Woods won't contend at Augusta, you have to buck not only his current form but also his history. In other words, to construct a scenario in which Tiger does not contend at Augusta, you have to do some pretty heavy statistical gymnastics. You need to somehow reveal that golfers who have traditionally entered events at the top of their game and possess a history strong past performances do not play well at those events.
That might happen in this case, of course. Woods might miss the cut or worse. But there isn't any empirical data that points to this being true, so all you are left with is a notion or a feeling.
As for why this is so compelling, well, that part is pretty easy.
The comeback is often more fascinating -- if not better -- than the first go-around. Look, I've seen "Caddyshack II." The sequel is not always as good as the original (in fact, that's rare), but when certain factors align, the sequel can sometimes be more fascinating. Tiger has fallen into a perfect spot in which the tail end of his prime was sequestered by injury and scandal, but he bounced back before he was washed. (I think this is where I remind you that only two humans have a faster club head speed than Tiger on the PGA Tour this year.) Unlike Michael Jordan with the Wizards, he is returning with some modicum of his former self still present.
It won't be an every-week thing, and it won't be as often as we would hope. Whatever you think about Tiger Woods, it's tough to not be compelled by a final act, by this American hero-turned-tragic-figure and just how many performances he still has left in the tank. He might never win again, and it might not matter. If we as a society have proven anything, it's that we love youth in sports but love remembering what youth used to be even more.
The contrast is great between Woods and his new foes. An aging icon must have foils, and Woods has the greatest ones: Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, just to name a few. I am transfixed by the idea of a Tiger-J.T. final pairing on Sunday or a Tiger-Rory shootout late on the second nine.
This has been a consistent trope of mine throughout this year, so I probably don't need to expand much on it, but I'll leave you with the words of Ben Crane during the Valspar Championship a few weeks ago. He said it better than I could anyway.
Tiger provided the most compelling TV drama over the last 20 years. Kids who watched him quit basketball, baseball and football because they wanted to be like him. Now he’s facing competition that he literally created. What a sport.— Ben Crane (@bencranegolf) March 11, 2018
Since turning pro in 1996, Tiger has 13 top 10s at this tournament in 18 total appearances. I fully expect those numbers to be 14 and 19 this time next week. The questions will primarily be whether he can once again (and most improbably!) scale the mountain, and maybe more curiously, who climbs it with him.