We could argue past last call about what would constitute Tiger Woods's being "back." Winning a tournament? Winning a major? Returning to No. 1? Those who know him measure it differently.
Justin Thomas, who won the PGA Championship last August, plays regularly with Woods at their home club, Medalist, in Jupiter, Fla. In November, with the wind whipping and nobody televising them, Thomas started to think he was not just playing with his friend Tiger but with the Tiger he had grown up watching: "The speed that he had, the shots he was hitting.... More so than anything, you could tell the confidence in his voice, how much he was enjoying life and having fun. It was, 'O.K., he's got a shot at this.'"
Sean Foley, who coached Woods from 2010 to '14 and says he has "mad love" for Woods, watched the Hero World Challenge in December and saw a hero ready to challenge the world. On a par-5 at the Albany Golf Course in the Bahamas, Woods hit a 2-iron shot downwind 265 yards into the green, which merely requires temporary suspension of the laws of physics.
"He just threw it straight up in the air," Foley says. "I was like, Mmm, there we go. He is mechanically sorted."
It was not just the shot that impressed Foley. It was the steep angle and the clubhead speed required to hit it. The 42-year-old Woods is playing with a fused back; he swings with noticeably less torque than he did in his 20s. If he could hit that 2-iron and walk pain-free down the fairway afterward, that was a promising sign.
The signs have been all over the Tour this winter, when Woods has played seemingly every round with a member of the Tiger Woods Fan Club. Rookie Sam Burns got paired with him at the Honda Classic and said of his opening tee shot, "I don't even remember feeling the club in my hands. It was like everything was numb."
Foley says he saw Patrick Reed in a locker room, pumping his fist as Woods sank a 10-footer for par; and up-and-comer Pan Cheng-tsung jumping when Woods made another putt; and Tommy Fleetwood, the 11th-ranked player in the world, excitedly recalling when Woods ... said hello to him.
This week Woods returns to Augusta National for the first time since 2015, and it will not be a ceremonial visit. Woods is healthy, apparently happy and playing well enough to win. Sometime this winter he stopped worrying about his back and started gunning for his fifth green jacket, and he isn't shy about it. Last year he said he just hoped to play without pain again. Two months ago he said he was "trying to get my game solid for April."
Woods almost always contended at the Masters, no matter the circumstances. In 2009, with his life and game out of whack, he still finished tied for sixth. He has three top four finishes since then. Winning the Masters is mostly about putting and wisdom. Woods is fourth on the Tour in total putting this season and first in his generation in Augusta wisdom. As he said recently, "Even though the golf course has changed dramatically from when I first started playing till now, I just understand where to miss."
Three years after his last Masters appearance, and 11 months after a DUI led to his seeking treatment for how he uses pain medications, Woods has given golf the gift it always wanted: himself. He hasn't won an event, but he is sixth on Tour in scoring average and contending almost every week. In his last three events he finished 12th, tied for second and tied for fifth.
"People are like, Are you surprised?" Foley says. "I'm like, Are you out of your f------ mind? What's unbelievable is that you say you don't believe it."
There has never been a golfer like Tiger Woods. This is the first and most important fact about him—the one that puts all others into proper context. A quick recap: Nobody else followed three straight U.S. Junior Amateur championships with three straight U.S. Amateur championships. Nobody else in the modern era won four straight majors, or 13 in a 10-year span. Nobody else set the scoring record at the Masters, rebuilt his swing, blew away the fields at the U.S. Open and British Opens, rebuilt his swing again, then kept winning majors.
Woods once made the cut in 142 consecutive tournaments. Jordan Spieth, who may be the best young star to come along since Tiger, has missed 11 cuts in the last four years.
All this is to say: If you wrote Tiger off in the last few years, you missed the point. If you thought nobody could return after this many back injuries, so what? Tiger is in his own category.
Sure, there were moments where even the biggest Tiger fan might have been skeptical. Like in 2015, when Woods's steely resolve seemed to crack. He would stand on the edge of the green and ... wait ... it can't be ... were those the yips?
The most famous shot of Woods's career might be his chip-in on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters. A decade later his short game came with a warning from the surgeon general: Watching this could be hazardous to a golf fan's health. In February 2015, his former coach Hank Haney wrote in Golf Digest, "Let's be serious. Tiger Woods has the yips."
At the time Woods gave one of his supertechnical explanations about his new chipping technique. This year he added that his back hurt the most while bending over to chip or putt. That surely limited his practice time, and it may have affected him in tournament play.
Regardless: There has been no sign of the chip yips this winter. If he did have them, then how did he overcome an ailment that is usually terminal? The answer is what the answer always is: There has never been a golfer like Tiger Woods. Give him a year of good health, and he can figure anything out.
One misconception about Tiger is that, when he was at his peak, he was flawless—or close to it. This is part of his mystique: He conquered the unconquerable game. The truth is that, even at the height of his powers, he was as vulnerable to wild mishits and lousy holes as any other top golfer. What made him so mesmerizing was his ability to overcome them.
At the 2000 U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, he had a triple bogey on Saturday. He won by 15 strokes anyway. At the 1997 Masters he shot 40 on his Thursday front nine. He won that tournament by 12.
In the latter years of his dominance, Woods often missed fairways by a wide margin, especially on the first hole of his round; this tendency informed the title of Haney's book about Woods, The Big Miss. He was still the best golfer in the world.
In 2006, Woods was 139th in driving accuracy. He still won two majors.
So when you look at PGA Tour stats and see that Woods is 147th in total driving and 202nd in driving accuracy, just shrug. Or keep watching—he has finished under par in 10 straight rounds. He still has the combination of mental toughness, creativity, intelligence and shot-making ability that made him so great for so long. All these years later Woods can still make the ball dance.
Thomas, 24, who is ranked No. 2 in the world and could rise to No. 1 with a strong Masters, remembers a 95-yard wedge shot that Woods hit when they were paired together in the Bahamas in December: "He is so good at taking spin off the ball, something I have tried to learn from him. He hit a tight-draw pitching wedge. That's a shot I've been trying to learn to hit for a while. He did it right in my face."
If you watch this Woods comeback tour and must compare him with another golfer, we have a guy for you. His name is Tiger Woods.
Five years ago this week, Woods appeared on the cover of this magazine with a one-word billing: back. He had won three of his five starts heading into the Masters. He finished fourth at Augusta, and he might have won if not for a bizarre sequence on Friday when he hit the flagstick at number 15, then took an illegal drop.
When people say Woods has been gone for 10 years, they are guilty of silly-high standards or collective amnesia. Woods has not won a major title since 2008—with 14 majors, he trails only Jack Nicklaus with 18—but he was the PGA Tour's Player of the Year in 2013.
By the end of that season Woods was already having back trouble, which would limit him to just 19 events from 2014 through '17, including none in '16. He worked with swing coach Chris Como for three years before deciding to go it alone in December. And now, in some sweet irony, he is probably benefiting from the decisions that earned him so much flak in the past.
For years critics have implored Woods to return to his old instructor Butch Harmon, or at least to the swing he honed with Harmon early in his career. The reality is that with a fused back, he could never make a swing with that much rotation now. And while we can debate whether Woods should have changed swings several times over the years, all those changes are surely helping him. He is more prepared to learn a new swing than any golfer in history.
Woods has been surprised by how fast he is swinging. In the third round of the Valspar Championship last month he recorded the fastest clubhead speed on the Tour this year: 129.2 mph on the par-5 14th hole. That added fuel to the hype machine—perhaps more than it should.
If the PGA's figure is accurate, why did Woods's drive travel only 326 yards, including roll? That's a nice poke, but it doesn't stand out on the Tour. Woods himself drove it 361 yards at the Honda Classic, and 342 at the Valspar.
Woods is 37th on the Tour in driving distance. He will never bomb the ball past the competition the way he did in his 20s. But he is hitting it far enough to still play like Tiger Woods.
Foley says, "Will he win a couple times this year? Certainly. Would I be surprised if he was in contention for all four [major championships]? Absolutely not. How can any of us be?"
Thomas may have the best perspective: "If he stays healthy and continues to get into contention, there is no reason he can't win. But there is no reason to hold him to that standard and say, He has to win this many times. It's important to just let him play. Keep having fun."