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Given the state of his body (and his life) a year ago, the question, "Will Tiger Woods play in the Masters?" -- though certainly tiring and repetitive -- must feel like the easiest burden in the world for Woods to bear as April approaches. This time last year, following his horrific car wreck near Los Angeles just after the 2021 Genesis Invitational, the question was not whether Tiger would step to the tee at the first major of the year but rather whether he would ever walk again at all.

He has been walking, of course, but we didn't see him in public for some time. All four majors passed with no word from Woods. The FedEx Cup Playoffs went by, and then the Ryder Cup was played. It wasn't until December at the Hero World Challenge that he reemerged, immediately attempting to quell expectations for what the rest of his career would look like.

Woods insisted he would never play a full slate again, saying he would pick and choose his spots. It didn't seem like much was forthcoming.

But he followed that with a surprisingly spry performance later in December at the PNC Championship with his son, Charlie. Immediately, talk of a 24th Masters appearance began to percolate. Tiger looked strong off the tee, and though he used a golf cart, his distance control (albeit in a glorified pro-am, if it was even that difficult) was eye-opening. It became impossible to not start thinking about how his first round back professionally could be at Augusta National on April 7.

Tiger again pumped the brakes.

"I'm not at that level," Woods insisted after the PNC. "I can't compete again these guys right now, no. It's going to take a lot of work to get to where I feel like I can compete at these guys and be at a high level."

After two more months of rehab, rest and recovery, there was hope that Woods would feel prepared to make a global declaration at the Genesis Invitational on the one-year anniversary of his car crash.  But when he was interviewed by Jim Nantz during Round 3 at Riviera Country Club in late February, Woods rebuffed the notion that his return is imminent.

"I don't know," said Woods, who looked more fit and joyful than he has in a long time. "I can hit balls. The hard part is actually walking; that's going to take some time. I'm going to have to put in the time and effort at home and do all the beach walks and walk golf courses. It's very easy at Medalist to hop in a cart and whip around and play a quick 18 or 36. It's a little different deal than being out here with these guys and walk up and down the hills. The ankle mobility, over time the ankle swells, foot swells, leg swells. That's just time.

"I'd love to tell you I'll be playing next week, but I don't know when [I'll return]. It's frustrating in that sense because I've been down this road before with my back when I didn't know when I was going to come back. It's hard to not have goals out there. I want to play this event so I can set myself up for that mentally, physically and emotionally. I don't have any of those dates in my head."

Woods also refused to commit to a playing date, even though Nantz tried his best to get it out of him.

Nantz: "Augusta, any shot that you would play the Masters this year?"
Woods: "I don't know." 
Nantz: "So, it's still a possibility?"
Woods: "I'll be there Tuesday [at the Champions Dinner]."

Tiger is clearly lowering long-term expectations because he knows he only has so many swings left in his body, but he's doing so while simultaneously setting us up for short-term surprise.

This happened in December between the Hero and the PNC. At the Hero, just three weeks before the PNC, Woods talked like a man hobbling around the golf course, barely able to hit wedges, much less rip driver. Then three weeks later he looked … really good.

The long-term prognosis for Woods is not great. In addition to the leg, his back is a mess, and in fact, it was the very thing that was keeping him out of last year's Genesis Invitational. But in the short term? Anything is possible.

So while I don't believe Woods will play Augusta in April, it's certainly still on the table. Just because he gave Nantz the Heisman pose in the booth two weeks ago doesn't mean he's not going to be among the 90-plus golfers putting a peg in the ground five weeks from Thursday.

It's not that Tiger is being dishonest here -- walking the rolling hills of Augusta would surely be a real problem for him right now -- but he was never going to give us the goods at the end of February either way. That's not how he operates.

If he does show up, will he be competitive? Perhaps a better way to say that: If the body feels good, will he believe he can be competitive enough to make showing up worthwhile?

History has proven out that Woods will not play if he doesn't believe he can legitimately contend, but he's done it before in this event. After not playing a competitive tournament from the end of 2009 to the 2010 Masters, he finished T4 at Augusta that year. That was also 12 years (and several surgeries) ago. This would be his first professional tournament since the 2020 Masters in November. If he does play in this Masters, 18 months will have elapsed between pro starts.

Even if he believes he can compete, Woods almost certainly knows he can't win this year's Masters. Not after 18 months off. Not with his body in the shape it's in right now. It took months and months of building -- remembering what it feels like in the heat of the event -- before he won the 2019 Masters, his Everest.

The question then becomes: Does he want to play knowing he might be able to contend but has no chance of winning?

Tiger knows there will be plenty of Masters in his future; he has a decade's worth of trips around Augusta in front of him. Perhaps it's best to not waste those limited swings on this one.

The more likely scenario for Woods, it seems, is a return this summer for the Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Opens at St. Andrews have a shelf life, and Tiger has shared often his admiration for that golf course and its place in the history of the game. He has probably two (at most) rips at an Open on that course -- where the Open goes to every fifth year or so -- and he won't want to miss this one. 

Tiger's sense of golf history is tremendous, and though he has for the majority of his career not given thought to being a ceremonial golfer (as defined by not having a real chance to win a tournament), this year's Open might be an exception. Additionally, even if he doesn't get the prep work he needs or his body isn't 100%, it's easy to envision him convincing himself that his wisdom and genius give him a real opportunity on that course to perhaps get into the mix a bit, perhaps see himself on the leaderboard. It's a place where your mind can triumph in a way that other places don't allow.

So while returning at Augusta National in just over a month is a possibility, it's not one worth betting on. There are too many red flags going into the home stretch of committing to the first major of the year.

Woods' return to major championship golf could come at the 2022 Masters, and that would be a joyful, terrific moment for him and for golf as a whole. However, the better bet -- if we see Tiger at all in 2022 -- is at an equally-famous course later on this summer when the 150th Open is played at St. Andrews for the 30th time in history.