- Tiger Woods’s PGA season came to an early ending after struggling in the FedEx Cup, but don’t let the so-so showings and missed cuts fool you: 2019 was special.
Tiger Woods played just nine official rounds on Sundays this entire season. In eight of those nine rounds, he never had a chance to even pressure the leaders. Only once all year did Woods finish closer than eight strokes behind the eventual champion. The 81-time PGA Tour winner woke up on Sunday with a chance to win a golf tournament exactly one time in 2019.
You might remember that Sunday. It was April and it was a bit earlier in the morning than it should have been. In addition to Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele and Francesco Molinari, Woods had a storm to beat that day. And beat them he did. The 43-year-old with a fused back outlasted the youngsters to win his fifth Masters and 15th major championship, completing one of the unlikelier comebacks in sports history and delivering an all-time sports moment in the process.
The enduring image of Tiger Woods’ 2018-19 season will be that of him pumping both arms into the air, his biceps stretching the sleeves of his blood-red mock turtleneck, his neck veins bulging as he let out a primal scream as a gentle drizzle fell on Augusta’s 18th green. Even if he didn’t play another event the entire year, that Masters triumph made this campaign an unabashed success. At this point in his career, and with all due respect to the Northern Trusts of the world, the only golf tournaments that really matter to Woods are the majors. Win one, and the year is an unmitigated triumph. He confirmed that himself after he finished his season with an uninspired 72 Sunday at the BMW Championship. That round wasn’t close to enough to get him into the Tour Championship, but he still called a season in which he managed just four top 10s “very special.”
"Some of the tournaments I didn’t play as well as I wanted to,” he said, “but I’ve got the green jacket.”
After Woods claimed that green jacket, I wondered whether it would be the harbinger of another sustained period of dominance—like we saw in ’00-’02 and ’05-‘07—or if hindsight would prove it to be a one-off swan song, similar to Jack Nicklaus’ victory at the ’86 Masters?
It’s still too early to rule definitively, but we can say with certainty that Woods’ barren end to the season has only served to make his Masters victory that much more remarkable.
He has made just six starts since Augusta. He missed the cut twice, at the PGA Championship and British Open, and would likely have missed the weekend at the Northern Trust had he not withdrawn with an oblique strain. The three times he did indeed complete all four rounds were at the Memorial, where he finished a respectable T9, the U.S. Open, where he was never a factor and took T21, and last week’s BMW Championship, where he finished T37 in a 69-man field. In 17 rounds since the Masters he managed to break 70 only three times.
Paradoxically, part of the reason Woods fared so poorly after winning the Masters is because he won the Masters. The victory completed his comeback and everything after it would be gravy. The motivation, then, to push his body and his game harder isn’t as sharp when you know you’ve already done the damn thing. We also didn’t fully appreciate just how much that victory and everything that came with it—the grueling four days, yes, but also the months of preparation and practice to get his game in major-winning shape—took out of him. Perhaps we should have. We were warned. Multiple times.
“Very few people really know what Tiger Woods has been thru to get back to this point,” Rory McIlroy foreboded on Twitter the night Woods pulled it off. The first time we saw Tiger after Augusta was in a Golf TV video where he looked...stiff, to put it kindly. The first time we saw Tiger in a tournament after the Masters was at Bethpage Black, where his gait looked uncomfortable, his face tired and his game sloppy. He had understandably taken time off to bask in the glory of his accomplishment.
It was, unfortunately, a sign of things to come. As the season wore on and the meh performances piled up, Woods continued to remind us that he can’t practice as much as used to, that he can’t play as many tournaments as he used to and that in the tournaments he does play, there will be weeks his body simply precludes him from contending. While this may seem obvious for a man with a medical history like Tiger's, it actually was quite different last year, when Woods posted seven top 10s in 18 events and was more or less consistent all year. He did not fade in 2018 like he did in 2019; in fact, he peaked in his very last event of the season, winning the Tour Championship. He did not withdraw from any events and hardly complained about physical limitations.
What, then, can we expect from Woods next season? We know he’ll play another light schedule, perhaps teeing it up even less than the 12 times he did in 2019. But how will he look when we see him again next year? Is the downward turn that we saw post-Augusta indicative of the new normal? Or will an extended period of off time—unless he selects himself with a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup, the only event Woods will play before the end of the year is the inaugural Zozo Championship in Japan, which begins Oct. 4—allow Woods to rejuvenate and show up in 2020 as the limber, savvy player that won the Masters? And if he does look good in the fall and spring, will he be able to keep up that level of physicality throughout the season, or will he trudge through another summer of T37s and missed cuts in major championships?
To employ an all-time cliché: time will tell. But one thing is already certain: if you offered Woods a choice between his consistent 2018 and a 2019 that saw him win at Augusta and do virtually nothing else, he’d take 2019. Seven days a week, and twice on Masters Sunday.