*all photos by Marc Serota
If he’s really coming back, get ready for the most-watched Masters Tournament of all time.
That’s how big a story it will be if Tiger Woods tees it up next week in Augusta, a little more than a year after a horrific single-car accident nearly cost him his right leg. And even as he kept the public posted on his remarkable recovery, we all saw him walking with a pronounced limp and wondered, ‘Can Tiger really compete again on the PGA TOUR?’
As of this writing, Woods has yet to make an announcement. He still has a few days before the field is set. But indications are Woods, who won the 2019 Masters for his 15th major championship, is strongly leaning toward making the 2022 Masters his latest return to competition:
- Reports on PGA TOUR radio had Tiger on the course for a practice round last week in Augusta with his son, Charlie, and fellow pro Justin Thomas.
- Woods has been walking rounds regularly in Florida, building the stamina he’ll need, though it is difficult to replicate four days over Augusta’s grueling hills.
- Woods also has been simulating pro tournaments during his rounds in Florida, even bringing in caddie Joe LaCava for four consecutive days of play, according to The Wrap on PGA TOUR Radio.
If Woods is doing those things, then barring a setback, he’s planning on playing. And if he’s planning on playing, he’s not just doing it to see how he does. Woods not only knows his game, he knows what is needed to win the Masters – he’s done it five times.
He’s not even coming just to make the cut. He’s coming to win.
If he pulls it off in his first event back after the accident, it immediately becomes one of the greatest accomplishments in sports.
But there’s a lot of other talent out there, too.
MY TWELVE TOP CONTENDERS
Scottie Scheffler’s meteoric rise to No. 1 in the world has taken the spotlight off Thomas, but winning the Masters would change that. Thomas has yet to pick up a win in 2022, but he’s arguably playing as consistently well as anyone on Tour. Miscues here and there have tripped him up, but to me he’s almost an irresistible pick at Augusta. Too much talent. And he’s due. Thomas hasn’t won since the 2021 Players Championship. It feels like a great opportunity for him.
I’ve always loved Slammin’ Cam’s game. When he is hot he is a lot of fun to follow at events. He deserves to be mentioned among the game’s current elites, which means he is a contender anytime he tees it up. Don’t forget, he tied for second when Johnson won in 2020. Since then, he’s only gotten better. I’ll be surprised if he’s not on the weekend leaderboard.
Koepka owns four major titles – two U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships – but he’s slipped into the background the past few seasons with injuries that carried on longer than expected. Koepka seems happy to be back at full strength, he’s playing well and he really, really wants a green jacket. Indeed, wanting it so much could be one of his biggest challenges. In Koepka I see another veteran player who has not won in more than a year, but is trending toward a title.
He’s not ranked No. 1, at the moment, but he’s still my pick as the world’s most talented player. His game is rounding into form and he played very well at the WGC-Dell, advancing to the round of 16. All the questions about Rahm’s play around the greens and his up-and-down putting brings him into Augusta with something to prove. Look out.
Johnson briefly fell out of the top 10 and is now ranked No 8. Watching him over the years, it’s easy to tell when a win is coming. He lost in the semifinals at the WGC, but Johnson looked sharp, saying afterward he is “very close.” His 25th PGA TOUR victory could happen anytime. If he putts well at Augusta, he could grab his second green jacket.
Speaking of career grand slams, McIlroy has won the other three (2011 U.S. Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships, 2014 Open Championship), and he’s the only player in the field who can complete one with a Masters victory. McIlroy’s loss of a four-shot lead in 2011 will fade to black if he can notch that triumphant return, and there’s no doubt his tee-to-green game is as good as ever when he is on form. A bit of a tough read these days – he has not won a major title since 2014 – but McIlroy remains one of the world’s best players. If his putter is working, he would undoubtedly be the people’s choice. I see him contending.
If the question is who is playing the best in the world right now, Scheffler is the answer. But to cement that No. 1 ranking, he’s going to have to add a major title in 2022. There’s no reason to think Scheffler won’t contend at Augusta – he does everything well and while he has not won a major, he has six consecutive top 25 finishes in majors, including T18 and T19 the past two Masters. He would typically be a trending pick, except he’s already won three times this season and it just seems unlikely he can keep it up with so much parity on Tour. A top five finish? Can definitely see that.
No matter the odds, no matter how unlikely, it all becomes more likely when the player involved is Woods, the runaway greatest player of his generation and by most accounts the player listed along with Jack Nicklaus as the greatest of all time. What other 44-year-old golfer who is a year past nearly losing his leg would you even consider picking to win the Masters? Woods’ knowledge of the place gives him an edge and he has the length to compete, even on a newly lengthen Augusta National layout. His iron play is typically spectacular, and that’s one of the reasons he’s had so much success at the Masters – he knows where to land the ball on some of the trickiest greens in golf.
The defending champion returns to one of the toughest places to repeat – only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) have pulled off back-to-back Masters victories. Matsuyama’s win last year was historic – the first Japanese male golfer to win a major championship – and he very likely will be on the leaderboard this year. But there’s a lot of history working against him. The main reason I believe he won’t win this year is because he won last year.
Morikawa has two major titles and is the game’s best iron player, which typically would make him a favorite as Augusta demands accurate iron play. But it also demands great putting, and while Morikawa’s stats are solid, his putting does not seem to be as reliable as the rest of his game. He is the No. 3 player in the world and notched a top 20 finish in last year’s event. I can see that happening again, and he may pick up a green jacket someday, but not this year.
Schauffele is one of three players ranked in the top 10 who have yet to win a major (Patrick Cantlay and Cam Smith are the other two) but it is Schauffele who has come the closest. He has been a runner-up in the Masters and Open Championship, with a third-place finish in the U.S. Open. He does own an Olympic gold medal and his game is well-suited for Augusta. He’s been uneven so far in 2022, but that may mean nothing. Don’t be surprised if Schauffele gets it going and is right in the thick of it again.
Not many guys pick up three wins before making their Masters debut, but not many players are as talented as Burns. Talk about a dialed-in game – Burns is on the plus side in every strokes-gained category measured on the PGA TOUR. Burns is long and unflappable and he knows how to hold on to a narrow lead – he defended his title at the Valspar Championship in March with a playoff win over Davis Riley. No Masters rookie has won the event since Fuzzy Zoeller did it in 1979. Burns is the kind of special player who could pull it off.
Kisner makes the watch list because he has been red-hot. He lost the championship match in the WGC to Scheffler, who played so well no one could have beaten him that day. Kisner is one of the best putters in the world inside 10 feet – that’s huge on Augusta’s slick greens. He has contended before, finishing T21 in 2019, and he is making his seventh appearance. He does not have the length of some others, but he has the overall game and his play around the greens puts him in contention.
Ancer finished T26 last year and T13 in 2020 – and he’s playing better now than he was in either of those years. Ancer is on the way up and his been on leaderboards plenty this season – he has a pair of top 10 finishes since January. He is developing patience and has the mental makeup to hang in there, a must when things get a little shaky at Augusta. He’s also an excellent putter, making Ancer one to watch as he seeks his first major title.
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