For the first time in more than a decade, Tiger Woods rolls into a year a defending major champion. For the first time in his career, Woods rolls into a year as not just a dominant figure in golf, but a dominant elder statesman. And for the first time in many years, Woods rolls into a year with not just hopes that he’ll win big tournaments, but expectations he will.
Woods began his 2020 season at Torrey Pines on Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open, a locale where he won what seemed like it would be his final major: The dramatic one-legged 2008 U.S. Open victory over Rocco Mediate. He fired a 3-under 69 in his opening round in San Diego, thanks to three birdies in his final nine holes of the day on the North Course.
Now, though, he’s coming off a victory in the 2019 Masters, and he’s tied Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour victories ever with 82. (Technically, he’s already won once this season, at the ZOZO Championship back in October.)
So what’s left for Woods to do? Honestly, from a career perspective, it’s all club twirls at this point. He would’ve been a legend had he retired a decade ago. Now, after pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, he’s as close to immortal as anyone can get. It’s all house money at this point. But here’s what’s at stake for Woods in 2020:
The majors. Woods is now just three back of Jack Nicklaus’s long-standing record of career majors, and while opinions differ on just how much that means to Woods at this point, if he were to pick up another green jacket or Claret jug this year, every major for the next half-decade would be The Tiger Show. (Decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.) In the last two years, Woods has finished in the top six at least once in three of the four majors. That Masters win might not be the end of the story.
The heavyweights. For all his regained skill, Woods still isn’t on the level, talent-wise, with the greatest in the game. Over the course of a season, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and others can outdistance him. The question is how well they fare straight-up in a single tournament, and so far, Woods has shown he can hang. He’s able to face down McIlroy almost every time, and he just has to stay out of Koepka’s reach. Easier typed than done, of course.
The Olympics. For all he’s done in his career, Woods has never played in the Olympics—not really surprising, given that he wasn’t in playing shape back in 2016, and prior to that, golf hadn’t been an Olympic sport since 1904. He’s said all the right things about wanting to represent the USA, but the truth is, he’ll have a tough time making the team if he plays a reduced schedule. The Olympics formula rewards wins closer to Tokyo, so if he can notch a couple big wins in the spring, he’s in.
The all-time victory mark. Say what you will about Snead’s all-time PGA Tour mark—let’s just say that some of those wins came against less-than-full-strength fields—it stands as one benchmark for golf excellence. And Woods has matched it ... and ought to pass it sometime soon. When? That’s the question. It could come as soon as this weekend, or it could stretch into the summer. Outside of the majors, Woods won’t play many events—don’t look for him at the Anonymous Midwest Manufacturer Classic anytime soon—but he has a chance at Bay Hill, the Memorial and several other familiar courses. It won’t quite be 19 majors, but 83 Tour wins will only add to the legacy.
It ought to be a fascinating year.
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