There is an obvious void at the 2016 Masters Tournament, as the famed golf tournament is missing arguably its most famous personality. Tiger Woods, a four-time winner of the sport's most treasured tournament, remains absent from the tour while recovering from back surgery in September.
The chances of Woods reappearing in Augusta always seemed like a stretch, with the 14-time major champion generally mum about his physical status. But good news could be on the way for the 40-year-old, who continues to pursue Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major championships.
Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte tweeted Woods was “hitting drivers at full speed” at Medalist Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida, less than a day after attending the Masters Champions dinner at Augusta National on Tuesday night.
There had been a shred of hope that Woods might be improving in late February, when he posted a video on Twitter of him driving a ball under the caption: "Progressing nicely." However, in the midst of an eight-month layoff following two surgeries to his lower back, Woods nixed any chance of a return on his official website and provided an update on his future status.
"After assessing the present condition of my back, and consulting with my medical team, I've decided it's prudent to miss this year's Masters,” Woods said in a statement.
"I've been hitting balls and training daily, but I'm not physically ready. I've said all along that this time I need to be cautious and do what's best for my long-term health and career. Unfortunately, playing Augusta next week wouldn't be the right decision. I'm absolutely making progress, and I'm really happy with how far I've come, but I still have no timetable to return to competitive golf.”
Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg was also quoted last week about his client’s condition and tempered expectations, essentially reiterating Woods’ statement when speaking with ESPN on Wednesday after word spread of his work at Medalist.
"He was at Medalist today, and he had a full practice session and he was hitting driver," Steinberg said. "I can't tell you if it was a full speed or full bore, because I wasn't there. Like he and I have both said, he felt like he is continuing to make progress."
Steinberg also extinguished any lingering hopes of a specified return date, seemingly easing public pressure off his client.
"I don't know how hard he was hitting the driver or his 2-iron or his 5-iron," Steinberg said. "I don't know when he'll be back. I think it's just part of the process. He is not setting a time to return. I want to be clear there is zero timetable. He's happy to get out at Medalist and take another step.”
Woods last hit the PGA links in August at the Wyndham Championship, finishing in 10th place, but a month later he underwent surgery on his back and reportedly had another procedure in October.
Injuries, along with a 2009 leave of absence following his extramarital affairs, have slowed Woods' quest to surpass Nicklaus. Coming back from surgery and climbing Augusta’s leaderboard did seem like the perfect setting for Woods to reignite one of golf’s most legendary and record-setting careers.
But Woods seems to be playing more of a long game, hoping to make sure he can return and compete at optimum strength to challenge young stars Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and others.
The next major is the U.S. Open, which takes place on June 19 at Oakmont Country Club in Plum, Pennsylvania.