Tiger's Masters preparation is over and, somehow, he's the oddsmakers' favorite. But he's not the only golfer who will like his chances at Augusta.
Let's play a game.
Rewind to roughly noon Thursday, Jan. 25. Tiger Woods, making his first official PGA Tour start since taking a year off to undergo spinal fusion surgery, is +2 after five holes at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. On a course he's won at eight times—a factoid that served to underscore how different the Tiger Woods of then was from the Tiger Woods of now—Woods looked destined for a battle just to make the weekend.
Now imagine someone had told you that in roughly two months, Tiger would be coming off back-to-back top-five finishes and entering Masters lead-up as the Vegas favorite to secure his fifth green jacket. Spectators at Torrey on that chilly Thursday, having seen Tiger struggle early with wild misses with the driver, might've had an easier time believing Tiger would miss the Masters altogether than enter as the favorite.
Because his recent play has slowly but steadily improved, it's easy to overlook just how far everyone's expectations of Woods have come.
Woods battled back to shoot even-par in the opening round of the Farmers, then chipped and putted his way to a respectable t-23. Three weeks later he would miss the cut at Riviera, then surprised some by committing to play the Honda Classic the very next week. It was at the Honda that the Tiger hype-train, which needs only the faintest nudge to reach full bandwagon speed, began to pick up momentum. Tiger led the field in proximity to the hole and took solo 12th, a finish that could have been better but for a disappointing back nine on Sunday. Then came the t-2nd at the Valspar and, most recently, a t-5 at the Arnold Palmer. (He was listed as the Masters favorite after posting a three-under 33 on his opening nine on Thursday at Bay Hill). Tiger's shot par or better in 10 straight rounds and is now firmly back in the proverbial mix—he's already up to 105th in the world, which may not seem particularly impressive for a man with 79 victories on tour, but it's nothing to scoff at when you consider he was outside the top 1000 just four months ago.
The anticipation for Augusta is the highest it has been in quite some time, and while Tiger is the main reason why, he is far from the only reason why. Take a peak at the list of winners of the events since Tiger's debut at the Farmers:
Farmers Insurance Open: Jason Day
Waste Management Phoenix Open: Gary Woodland
AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am: Ted Potter Jr.
Genesis Open: Bubba Watson
Honda Classic: Justin Thomas
WGC- Mexico Championship: Phil Mickelson
Valspar Championship: Paul Casey
Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard: Rory McIlroy
No disrespect to Ted Potter Jr., who has missed the cut in each of the four events he's played in since Pebble, but every other winner on that list has a legitimate chance to win at Augusta. Day is a former World No. 1 who is rounding into form after a disappointing 2017. Woodland is long enough to compromise Augusta's four par-5s and can get hot with the putter. Watson is a two-time Masters winner. Thomas is the world's best player at the moment. Mickelson's love affair with Augusta is well-documented. Casey has finished in the top-six in each of the past three Masters. McIlroy can win anywhere on his day.
A number of world-class players—and fan favorites—are peaking at the right time. That list of winners also doesn't include Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson or Justin Rose, three other guys who will like their chances at the season's first major. All this goes to say, while Tiger's comeback has been truly impressive, expecting him to beat all these guys to win at Augusta is too much, too soon.
It's worth remembering that Tiger hasn't won a major in nearly 10 years, since he famously won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Even when he got back to No. 1 in the world by winning eight times across 2012 and 2013, Woods' best finish in a major during that stretch was t-3rd. Clearly, winning one of golf's four crowned jewels is extremely difficult even when you're brimming with the confidence that comes with multiple victories, as Tiger was five and six years ago.
There's also this: Tiger's first win of the season has never come at a major. If history is any indicator, we need to see him win his 80th tour event before we'll see him win his 15th major.
So what is fair for us to expect of Tiger when he tees it up on the dogleg right opening hole at Augusta on April 5?
Tiger's been consistent enough in his recent starts to expect him to, at the bare minimum, make the cut. While he hasn't played the Masters since he tied for 17th in 2015, Woods knows the course like the back of his hand and has a comically large bank of pleasant memories on each and every hole to draw upon. He knows how he likes to attack the course, what shots he needs to have down-pat before the event begins, and perhaps most importantly, he has confidence in his short game, which is still one of the world's best.
He's going to make his fair share of birdies—he managed 20 at Bay Hill—each of which will add a jolt of electricity to the famously genteel patrons in attendance, but making birdies and winning majors are two very different propositions. When you haven't won a single tournament in nearly five years (Tiger's last win: Aug. 4, 2013) and are making your first start in a major since 2015, finishing in the top-20 has to be considered a good result.
Of course, if there's one person to shatter expectations, it's Tiger. He's already done exactly that this year by putting together four top-25s in five events after serious back surgery...at age 42. So would it be an absolute shock if he won? Surely not.
But instead of dampening Tiger's return to Augusta with unrealistically lofty expectations, let's appreciate the simple fact that we'll get to see him (and a resurgent Phil) compete against the game's next generation of stars on the sport's most hallowed grounds. For a while there, it looked like that day might never come.