Having endured the worst year of his career, Tiger Woods arrives at golf’s Masters week struggling to recapture the form to finish 72 holes, much less add to his 14 major titles.
The former world No.1 has sunk to 104th in the rankings, his lowest point since before taking his first PGA title at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, and played only 47 tournament holes this year.
Forget catching the career record 18 majors of Jack Nicklaus. Set aside the idea of three more PGA wins to match Sam Snead’s all-time victory record of 82. Woods has yet to prove his surgically repaired back and knees can still contend over 72 holes at age 39.
Woods managed only 11 holes at Torrey Pines in February before withdrawing with back issues. He missed the cut in January at Phoenix after a career-worst 82 in the second round.
In 10 PGA events since January of last year, Woods has withdrawn three times, missed three cuts and one secondary cut and completed 72 holes only three times, sharing 25th last year at Doral, placing 69th at the 2014 British Open and sharing last at his Hero World Challenge charity event last December, his third injury comeback event of 2014.
Back surgery a year ago caused Woods to miss the Masters for the first time in 20 years. He made three comebacks in 2014 but had issues with his back and his game each time, looking less imposing and more irrelevant with every failure.
“I’ve put in a lot of time and work on my game and I’m making strides, but like I’ve said, I won’t return to the PGA Tour until my game is tournament ready and I can compete at the highest level,” Woods said last month after skipping his usual final Masters tuneup at Bay Hill.
Woods whetted fans’ appetites for his return with practice at Augusta National this week, and confirmed on Friday he would play.
“I’m playing in the Masters,” he said in a statement on his website. “It’s obviously very important to me and I want to be there.
“I’ve worked a lot on my game and I’m looking forward to competing.”
Woods’s return will mark his longest layoff ahead of the Masters since 2010, when he endured a five-month absence in the wake of his infamous sex scandal that included a humbling public apology telecast worldwide.
Few places offer Woods the chance to awaken the echoes like Augusta National, where he has won four times and knows the secrets to success like few others.
In 2010, Woods shared fourth in his comeback. He shared fourth in 2011 and 2013, adding those to his 13 top-10 finishes at Augusta National starting with his record-shattering 1997 groundbreaking first major triumph.
Since then, Woods has never played more than three majors without managing a top-10 finish, a mark he puts at risk in his next major start.
Woods has not won a major title since the 2008 US Open, a drought of 20 major starts since with six having been missed due to injuries, and he has not won any title since the 2013 World Golf Championships event at Firestone.
Woods once commanded golf balls to bend to his will, from powerful long tee shots to amazing creativity and execution of rescue efforts and deadly accuracy on the putting green.
But his injury-ravaged back and surgically repaired knees no longer respond in the same way as in the glory days.
He would need to become the first player to win more than three majors after his 39th birthday to catch Nicklaus.
But no place better showcases Woods than Augusta National, where he became the first black golfer to win a major title and the first green jacket winner to put cheeseburgers on the Champions Dinner menu.
For all his magical shotmaking, sports fans were drawn to Woods for his fist-pumping passion, his determination and an aura of invincibility that delighted a public far beyond golf’s typical fan base.
Woods won by embarrassing margins, taking full advantage of new technology with a fitness regimen unseen before in golf. He spawned a lengthening of courses and a “second cut” at Augusta National as surely as if he had redesigned and reseeded the layouts himself.
Woods noted last December that “Father Time is undefeated,” but as he faces the later stages of his historic career, the world will be watching to see what sort of fight he delivers.