Tiger Woods made news this week for being the brunt of baseless, since-retracted rumors. As far as golf goes, however, he is still mired in an indefinite leave of absence from tournament play to work on his game.
It remains unclear if Woods can recover his form, but presumably he must be eyeing a return in time for the Masters set to begin April 9. If the 39-year-old were to play in the year’s first major at Augusta National, then he would likely want to play tournament golf beforehand to get a feel for his game.
Woods, especially in years past, typically fine-tunes his tournament schedule to align his game with courses he has success playing. His schedule usually reflects which courses he feels he has an eye for and which tournaments give him a chance at winning. So if Woods were to return to golf before the Masters, then there are a few events that would be more likely as a return spot than others.
Woods might be disappointed that he couldn't get back in action this weekend at the Cadillac Championship. The World Golf Championship event at Doral has typically been a comfortable weekend for the legend. He’s won the event seven times, accounting for a large chunk of his record 18 WGC event wins. The WGC tournaments are for big money and considered more important than a typical PGA event. That would have also been good training for a major, while still being a relatively long time away from the Masters. Woods, even if he were physically ready, wouldn’t have earned a start at the tournament. Only the top 50 players in the world qualify and his ranking has plummeted all the way to No. 75.
If Woods were feeling his game come back and wanted to return quickly, perhaps the Valspar Championship starting March 12 at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida would be an attractive option. Although a return at Innisbrook might be a bit unlikely. There haven’t been rumblings of a return just yet, and Woods would have to announce his intention to play by 5 p.m. ET this Friday in order to enter the field, were he to decide to return. The course is about a four-hour drive from Woods’ home in Hobe Sound, Florida, however, and he would get to jump into action toward the end of the tour’s Florida swing. He’s never won the Valspar Championship, but he’s played at the course before and would be at least familiar with what to expect. It would also be a less pressure-filled tune-up well outside the Masters-conversation-timeframe. Woods could try to recover his tournament presence with a less persistent barrage of major-related questions.
With the Cadillac Championship not an option and the Valspar Championship perhaps being too soon, another course Woods has found a good deal of success is Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Florida, which is about a two-hour drive from his home. Woods has won six times at the tournament first called the Bay Hill Invitational, now the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He won at Bay Hill in 2013, the last year Woods resembled the golfer who has won 14 majors. The event is scheduled to begin March 19, which would give Woods another couple of weeks to recover his game before his return. That also leaves enough time to play in two additional tournaments (if he chose to) before he would have to take on Augusta. Bay Hill would be a familiar choice, and would provide a good baseline for Woods’ game, should he decide to return.
In other words, Woods knows he can win at Bay Hill, so if the course is a constant, then the only variable would be his abilities. The winner of 79 PGA Tour events could gauge just about exactly where his game is. Returning at Bay Hill would then seemingly make a lot of sense for Woods.
If Bay Hill comes and goes without a Woods return, then his race to prepare for the Masters would seemingly be a bit hurried. That would leave just the Valero Texas Open starting March 26 and the Shell Houston Open starting April 2 to return before Augusta. Woods hasn’t won either tournament. It also wouldn’t provide much buffer time or space to recover from any nagging injuries that might occur (or reoccur) from the physical stresses of competitive golf.
There is this minor possibility to consider, as well: Woods might not return for the Masters at all. There's also a chance he might feel ready just in time for Augusta and decide to play with no lead-in tournaments. Only Woods knows precisely where his golf game is, and when he might return.
If the Masters is the goal however, a return at Bay Hill might make the most sense.