Christmas has come and gone, which means the 2022 golf year is on deck. Though most of the attention is on the upcoming year, Tiger Woods' performance at the 2021 PNC Championship a few weeks ago still resonates. He looked so … shockingly (?) good that it became impossible not to try and project where he might tee it up first in 2022. There are some very specific and obvious landing spots for him in the new year, but one stands out above them all -- and it's probably not the one you would expect.
But before we get to that, we should talk about a broader timeline. Obviously what Woods says does not always match up with what he does (this is true of all pro athletes), but he did note two distinct realities when, in a year marked by injuries, he held his first press conference in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge at the beginning of December.
1. "I don't foresee this leg ever being what it used to be, hence I'll never have the back what it used to be, and clock's ticking. I'm getting older, I'm not getting any younger. All that combined means that a full schedule and a full practice schedule and the recovery that it would take to do that, no, I don't have any desire to do that. But to ramp up for a few events a year as I alluded to yesterday as Mr. Hogan did, he did a pretty good job of it, and there's no reason that I can't do that and feel ready."
Tiger will not be playing 20 times a year, and he probably will not be playing 10 times a year. At this stage of his career, at his age with the number of operations he's had, playing 6-8 times a year is a ceiling that used to be a floor. Here's another hint he gave.
2. "As far as playing at the Tour level, I don't know when that's going to happen."
We got an answer to that -- sort of -- at the PNC Championship when Tiger and his son Charlie nearly won the event after shooting a 57 on Sunday in the scramble format. It's true that Tiger was in a cart the entire time and clearly exhausted at the end of it, but he was swinging the club at an astonishing speed for somebody who could have lost his leg 10 months earlier.
171-mph ball speed for Tiger on the 5th hole.— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) December 18, 2021
That’s exactly the Tour average — the same as world No. 2 Collin Morikawa.
After they played together on Sunday at the PNC, Matt Kuchar did everything but declare Tiger the Masters favorite in April (he's 40-1 according to Caesars Sportsbook, by the way).
Asked Matt Kuchar what he made of Tiger today:— Dan Rapaport (@Daniel_Rapaport) December 19, 2021
“Way impressed. Still flushing it, still has speed, irons are spectacular. Tiger Woods of old-like irons. Huntin’ flags, pin high every time. It’s awesome.”
But Tiger rebuffed it all when he was asked about the future.
"No, no, no, no," he said when asked whether he thought Kuchar's comments were accurate. "I totally disagree. I'm not at that level. 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."
He reiterated that he is "not going to play a full schedule ever again" and will pick and choose his events and "even then, my body might not cooperate with that."
So that's the background as 2021 leads into 2022. This year marked the first since 1991 in which Tiger didn't start at least one official OWGR event, and I can't imagine, especially after watching him at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club a few weeks ago, that streak running to two years. There are caveats, of course. Perhaps the back or the knee or the leg or the neck or any of the myriad body parts he's had carved up over the years don't cooperate and he's unable to play golf at a high level. But it became clear after watching him try to grind out a win with his son on that Sunday in Orlando that Tiger is still all about, if not winning then competing at the highest level in the sport.
"The competitive juices, they are never going to go away," said Woods. "This is my environment. This is what I've done my entire life. I'm just so thankful to be able to have this opportunity to do it again. Earlier this year was not a very good start to the year, and it didn't look very good."
So where might we see the competitive juices again, and what might Woods' schedule look like in 2022? Once he starts playing, he'll almost certainly -- body-willing -- play all the majors he can. But where (and when) will he start? There are 5-7 natural entrances for the 15-time major winner, and here is one man's guess based on all the evidence we have as he turns 46 later this week and takes his broken body (but still sharp game) into a new year.
Genesis Invitational (Feb. 17): Though the symmetry of returning to the event that took place just before his horrific accident in 2021 would be nice, this one is just too soon for Tiger. I would be more surprised if he played here than I was that he played the PNC Championship with Charlie.
Arnold Palmer Invitational (Mar. 3): If he wants to play the Masters but doesn't want to play it as his first event (like he did in 2010 when he finished T4 at Augusta), then this is a natural spot. I don't really buy it, though. I think we're looking at either Masters or a different event later in the year. I don't think we see Tiger on the course before April because I don't think he's as worried about rust as he is worried about getting his body rested and healthy for major championship golf.
Masters (April 7): It's easy to see, isn't it? Fifteen months after the accident, Tiger teeing it up with other greats at the grandest cathedral this country has to offer. A celebration of his career in a week that's very unlikely to end in a made cut -- much less contention for another trophy -- but nonetheless is one of the best moments of the entire golf year. Walking Augusta is a concern -- especially as his first tournament back -- but this is definitely in play in a way I didn't imagine it would be just a month ago.
PGA Championship (May 19): In my head, his first event back is either going to be the Masters or the Open Championship, but this one is certainly feasible. Six weeks is an eternity for him, so the distance between Augusta National and this second major of the year -- and how healthy he can get in the interim -- might make the decision for him.
Memorial (June 2): This would make sense if the PGA is too soon or he doesn't want to battle mighty Southern Hills. The weather will be warm enough here for him to feel confident about getting the body loose. It would also be a nice, low-stakes tune-up for the last two majors of the year.
U.S. Open (June 16): This would be a bizarre re-entry point for Tiger, who has not fared well at U.S. Opens over the past decade (he doesn't have a top 10 since 2010). I would be surprised if he put his body through the necessary tribulations it takes to tussle with a U.S. Open course and setup. If he's already returned, then perhaps, but I would be stunned if this was his first tournament back.
Open Championship (July 14): The Open gives Woods the most time to heal, and the 150th edition at a place where he's already won two major championships? Come on, it's the perfect marriage of golf history and living legend. Woods had wonder in his eyes when he was asked recently about potentially returning at the Old Course in July. He knows that while his opportunities at Augusta National are more expansive (he can feasibly play there for the next 20 years), the window on playing the Old Course at an Open is closing. As a true competitor there, this one or the next one -- sometime later in the 2020s -- will probably be his last one.
That will be meaningful, and no matter where we see him in 2022, I imagine he'll exert tremendous effort to make sure he's teeing it up at Burn on July 14 with the Claret Jug in his overwhelming shadow. What an incredible scene that would be.