In an ideal world, Tiger Woods hopes to play one tournament a month in 2024 with a schedule that would start in February at the Genesis Invitational and end at the Open Championship in July at Royal Troon.
Whether that’s possible he’ll begin to figure out this week at the $3.5 million Hero World Challenge, the 20-man event at Albany that he has hosted since 2000. Woods, who turns 48 next month, will compete for the first time since he underwent subtalar fusion surgery on his right ankle two weeks after withdrawing midway through the third round of the Masters in April. He’s as curious as anyone to see what shape his body and his game are in and what that could mean for his competitive career.
“I think that the best scenario would be maybe a tournament a month. I think that’s realistic,” Woods said Tuesday during a wide-ranging press conference. “Whether that’s … you would have to start with maybe at Genesis and then something in March near the Players. Again, we have it set up right now the biggest events are one per month. It sets itself up for that. Now, I need to get myself ready for all that. I think this week is a big step in that direction.”
It’s a step he couldn’t take a year ago when he withdrew from this event because of plantar fasciitis, a painful foot ailment that dogged him into the early months of the year. The condition was caused by ongoing issues with his right leg, which was badly injured in a one-car auto accident in February 2021. A five-time Masters champion, Woods made the cut at Augusta National for a record-tying 23rd straight time but struggled during a cold and rainy third round that was eventually suspended. He withdrew before the resumption of play on Sunday.
Approaching the podium in the media centre at Albany, Woods appeared to be walking with only the slightest hint of a limp. He decided to make his comeback at the relatively flat Ernie Els-designed layout after walking 18 holes each day while caddying for his son Charlie earlier this month at the Notah Begay III Junior Golf Championship in Louisiana. He has not played in his own tournament since finishing fourth in 2019.
“I was able to recover each and every day. I was still lifting and still doing a bunch of other things, too, alongside of that,” said Woods, who said he opted for fusion surgery instead of getting the ankle replaced. “So in conjunction with that and during part of it, all my beach walks at home, just the accumulation, how could I recover, could I keep progressing at the same time, right? I was hitting golf balls a lot, trying to get Charlie ready for the event. And then post event I started feeling, you know what, I can probably do, so why not?”
Walking 90 holes this week in a pro-am and the 72-hole tournament is not his major concern.
“It’s more, as I said, I don’t have any of the ankle pain that I had with the hardware that’s been placed in my foot, that’s all gone,” he said. “The other parts of my body, my knee hurts, my back. The forces go somewhere else. Just like when I had my back fused, the forces have to go somewhere. So it’s up the chain. As I said, I’m just as curious as all of you with what’s going to happen. I haven’t done this in a while.”
He has practiced quite a bit, and, he said, “I’ve played a lot of holes, but I haven’t, you know, I haven’t used a pencil and scorecard. Now you put a pencil to paper and it really counts, it’s a little bit different story. So I’m very curious about that as well.”
Winner of 82 PGA Tour titles, tied most all time with Sam Snead, Woods enters the week ranked 1,328th in the world, though it hardly matters what his world ranking is at this point in his career. He still is the game’s biggest draw and most consequential figure, as evidenced by his finishing second to Rory McIlroy in the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program bonus pool—despite just six complete competitive rounds this year. And, of course, his appointment to the tour’s policy board in the wake of the surprising framework agreement between the tour and the Saudi Public investment Fund makes him a front-line power broker instead of one behind the scenes.
This week, however, Woods returns to the golf course, the first step toward knowing if he can fulfil his seemingly ambitious playing goals for the coming year. Two weeks later he plans to join Charlie again in the PNC Championship, where he can use a cart.
He has put himself through yet another rigorous rehabilitation program because he thinks he can win, and he enjoys the challenge. Yes, he believes he can still win. Of course he does. Otherwise, he could just ride off into the sunset. But he’s simply not ready for that.
“I love competing, I love playing. I miss being out here with the guys. I miss the camaraderie and the fraternity like atmosphere out here and the overall banter,” he explained. “But what drives me is I love to compete. There will come a point in time, I haven’t come around to it fully yet, that I won’t be able to win again. When that day comes, I’ll walk … well, now I can walk. I won’t say run away, but I’m going to walk away.”
Just not yet.
Image: David Cannon/Getty Images