The only thing more surprising than Tiger Woods winning the 2019 Masters is that a 15-time major winner who won a major just 18 months ago is so unlikely to contend again that he’s not even among the top 14 favorites in the field. Perhaps even more damning is that two golfers who were still amateurs (Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff) last April when Woods won at Augusta National now have better odds than him to win the 2020 event as he makes a go of a repeat bid.
Such is life on Woods’ late-career roller coaster.
The highs are high: winning the Masters, lighting up the Zozo Championship, captaining and playing his way to a President’s Cup win. The lows aren’t equally as low as much as they are just middle of the road, which is no place for an 82-time winner on the PGA Tour to exist.
And yet, that’s where we stand with Woods.
The juxtaposition is bizarre. Tiger Woods will not win the 2020 Masters, and yet, he will be one of the handful of focal points both because he is Tiger Woods and because he has built one of the great sports careers on the foundation of statements such as “Tiger Woods will not win the 2020 Masters.”
The data is incontrovertible, though. Woods is playing like the 50th- or 60th-best player in the world, which is still a good but not somebody you would roll out as a Masters favorite or anywhere close. Since the PGA Tour restarted in June, his best finish is a T37 at the PGA Championship. His game is a leaky dam. He plugs one hole only to see two others burst.
Yet we have seen Woods compete (even contend!) at Augusta National with less than the game he’s bringing to the Masters this time around. Remember 2015? He was a non-factor as Jordan Spieth cruised, but Woods still finished T17 after taking several months off to fix his chipping yips following some dastardly bladed wedges at the start of that year. His game now is better than what it was then.
What makes Woods dangerous at Augusta National is that he’s both smarter and wiser than everyone else in the field. Smart enough to know where every single miss on the course exists and wise enough to know when to be patient and disciplined and when to put the pedal down. That one-two combination alone is worth a stroke a day. But there are many strokes to be made up.
In just six rounds so far this year, Woods is negative strokes gained in every single statistical category.
There is no conspiracy theory to explain his play. The back and legs and neck seem good enough, and he’s been mentally sound. The closest thing that qualifies to a big headline when it comes to Woods over the last few months is that he changed the grip on his putter at one point. Big news. The simplest explanation for his middling performance is that this is simply who Tiger is now.
The disconcerting part about Woods’ mediocrity in 2020 is actually that he’s not injured. When he’s been healthy over the course of his career, Tiger has always been elite, one of the best ever. Even in the middle of all the injuries — when he was healthy, he was great. That has not been true of the back half of 2020. Though he bowed out for a few months early in the year, his beaten-up body has held steady since then, but his game just has not been there.
We always thought that it would be some negative act that would break Tiger forever. Maybe he shoots 90 at a U.S. Open, and that’s a wrap. That would be the inflection point between presently existing as a legend and previously being one. Hopefully, it is not injury that takes us to that point.
What if, instead of looking for the negative moment that signifies the end, we are overlooking the most joyful moment of his career as the one that was the actual finale?
What if his 2019 Masters win was the real swan song — at least at major championships — to the greatest to ever put on spikes? It would be an oddity because success has always beget more success for Woods, but it would also be fitting.
Isn’t it plausible that climbing the mountain one final time is what let him lay everything he had been holding to rest? Tiger has not been the same at majors since that Masters win with three missed cuts and no top 20s in five appearances.
Last year was a mythical Masters. Movies (plural) will be made about it. Sunday was dream-like. And while much has gone the wrong direction for Woods over the latter half of his career, here’s something that went his way: His 15th major and fifth green jacket came in a pre-pandemic world that could properly celebrate it. Can you imagine if he’d won it in 2020 with no patrons around to bathe the old Fruitlands Nursery with chants of the one whose name they chanted two decades prior when he won his first? It still would have been good, but it would not have meant as much.
Nobody knows how Tiger is going to play over the course of the next week, month or year. Not even Tiger. Whether he wins 10 more majors or never makes another cut, one thing remains.
The 2020 Masters — bizarre and unconventional as it may be — is a reminder that, just one season ago, this all-time great sportsman housed inside of what could be considered a shell of his former self touched off an unthinkable week at Augusta National.
It was one thing for the mighty 21-year-old to destroy Augusta, but it was far more relatable when the 43-year-old scooped up his kids and screamed into that same sky and that same sun in complete and utter disbelief. I’m glad that he (and we) got to experience that. This year, with no patrons in attendance and less buzz on the property, somebody other than Woods will scream into the sky, but it won’t feel the same as it did just 19 months ago.