The clock is ticking on Tiger Woods. Surely the winner of 14 majors wants to compete in the Masters, which is set to begin April 9. But golf's most recognizable name has yet to make a return to action after announcing an indefinite leave of absence in mid-February.
A the moment, it doesn’t look good for Woods. The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, a tournament Woods has six times, wrapped up on Sunday. It seemed like a natural tournament at which the 39-year-old could return to the game. Yet just 17 days away the year’s first major at Augusta National, Woods hasn’t resurfaced, leaving Matt Every to win at Bay Hill for the second straight year, shooting -19 for the tournament. The fact that Woods skipped a tournament he clearly has a feel for might suggest he still believes his game is far from ready.
The average weekend golfer prefers to practice a bit before returning to the course after a long break (perhaps because of, say, a never-ending, back-breaking winter). Now imagine if Woods attempted to return to tournament golf at the Masters, the absolute biggest stage. Such a return immediately increases the degree of difficulty on the high-stakes weekend with an already tough course.
Just the Valero Texas Open and the Shell Houston Open remain before the Masters. The field for the Valero Open is set and is without Woods. The 79-time-winner has until 5 p.m. Friday to commit to the Shell Houston Open, or he would have to make his return at Augusta, should he decide to play the Masters.
A Woods return to golf in time for the Masters is not out of the question, however. A consistently confident player, Woods has an impressive record at Augusta, where he has won four times along with 11 top-five finishes. Recent history also suggests Woods—if he indeed recovers a semblance of his game—should be able to compete at Augusta. He skipped the event in 2014 due to back surgery. Prior to that, his last five finishes were mostly respectable at 4th (2013), 40th (‘12), 4th (’11), 4th (’10) and 6th (’09). Woods’ career average finish at Augusta is a solid 12th.
Woods also showed a few promising glimpses before taking time off. Yet the prevailing perception was that his short game was especially abysmal, and his drives were at times wildly inaccurate. In Woods’ two tournaments before his leave of absence he shot a career-worst 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (missing the cut) and had to withdraw from the Farmers Insurance Open. But Woods looked better physically and he had distance to his drives. At times he was stroking his irons and he made a few good putts. But clearly he wasn’t ready yet.
The signs currently don’t look good for a Woods return at the Masters. He might choose to sit it out for the second straight year, or he might return to Augusta cold, without a warmup tournament. Neither appears to be an appealing option in his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.