Update: Less than an hour after this went live, Woods withdrew from the Hero World Challenge with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, rendering this article all but obsolete. Such is life in the content game. Onwards and upwards.
Tiger Woods plays competitive golf this week. He will begin his warmup with a wedge, progress to the driver and finish with whatever club he’ll hit off the first tee, as he always does. He will sweat profusely. He will carry a scorecard in his back pocket and read four-footers from both sides of the hole. He will pick up his tee quickly after good shots and cuss after bad ones. He will wear red and black on Sunday.
Yes, Woods returns to the arena this week in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge, the unofficial, 20-man event that benefits his TGR Foundation. It marks Woods’ first competitive round since he limped around St. Andrews and missed the cut by a billion at the 150th Open Championship. That was a bitterly disappointing performance that never got off the ground, especially after he made the cut in the first two majors of the year.
Woods flushed his opening tee on that pleasantly warm Scottish afternoon only for his Bridgestone to find a divot and his approach to tumble into the burn that guards the Old Course’s first green. A double bogey at No. 1 poked a gaping hole in the hype balloon that week, and Woods looked more like a ceremonial golfer—his worst nightmare, as he’s said he’ll stop playing if he believes he cannot compete—as he literally limped through 36 holes before a semi-farewell on the Swilcan Bridge coming up 18.
His game obviously wasn’t there, and his gait has not improved since Woods’ first post-accident round at the Masters. We now know that Woods was actually battling yet another ailment that week in Scotland, for Rory McIlroy told Paul Kimmage in his yearly sit-down interview that he believes he gave Woods COVID-19 while the two hung out in in Ireland the week before the Open. Whether Woods still felt any effects during the tournament remains a mystery, and we can’t say for sure whether the illness had any impact on his game. And yet, the most ardent Tiger Optimists (of which there are many) will view McIlroy’s revelation as reason to essentially disregard that performance. This week, then, is an opportunity for Woods to show additional progress from the other two starts he made in 2022: making the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship.
Woods was impressive in practice and the opening two rounds at both Augusta and Southern Hills. At the Masters, his opening-round 71 on a bouncy golf course beat Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa, Shane Lowry, Jon Rahm, Max Homa and Justin Thomas by multiple shots. And at the PGA Championship, he grit his teeth through excruciating right-leg pain on Friday to grind out a one-under 69 and squeak through to the weekend. The problem was, he simply could not sustain that level of play over 72 holes. He shot back-to-back 78s over the weekend at Augusta after never shooting worse than 77 there as a professional, then withdrew after a tough-to-watch 79 on Saturday.
The inability to put four rounds together is understandable given the state of his right leg—it’s being held together by rods and screws, it’s a good bit shorter than his left one and the players who’ve seen pictures of the leg post-crash become squeamish at the memory—but it’s a rather large obstacle standing in the way of Woods and competing at the highest level of world golf again.
With this version of Woods, the issue is not hitting a single golf shot or even hitting multiple golf shots in a row; watch him on a driving range and he doesn’t look out of place hitting between McIlroy and Thomas. It’s everything that happens between shots that gives him issues. Namely, it’s the walking. The host venue for the Hero, the golf course at Albany, is not nearly as undulating as Augusta National or Southern Hills. It’ll be warm, which is great for any 46-year-old but especially one with Woods’ surgical history, and the resort-style course does not offer much in the way of rough. You couldn’t pick an easier tournament for Woods to walk 72 holes. The question is whether he can do so without having the wear and tear significantly impact his golf game. Woods said at the Open that he expects his leg to get stronger as time wears on, but not that much stronger. He’ll never have the mobility or stamina that he did before he flipped that SUV over the side of the road. The question is whether his leg can get to the point where it can sustain 72 holes of championship golf.
Given the strength of the field this week—16 of the top 20 players in the world are set to tee it up—how Tiger finishes on the leaderboard matters little. Instead, keep an eye on how his weekend scores compare to the ones from Thursday and Friday. If Woods plays at a similar level throughout the week—or, best-case scenario, if he actually looks better as the days wear on—it’ll be a hugely encouraging sign as to his long-term hopes of returning to a level where he can hold his own against the world’s best. But if his leg and his quality of play deteriorates on the weekend, a solid 22 months since the accident, even with his work ethic and the resources he’s spent on rehabilitation, it’ll serve as a sobering reminder that some challenges might be too tall to overcome. Even for Eldrick Tont Woods.
Thoughts on a new-look 13th hole at Augusta National
Augusta National seems to have finally ripped the band-aid off the par-5 13th hole. Initially designed as perhaps the ultimate risk-reward hole, the dogleg left forced players to fit their tee shots between a tributary of Rae’s Creek on the left and a forest of trees on the right. Find the fairway and you’d be faced with what Bobby Jones called a “momentous decision”: whether to go for the green and set up a back-nine eagle look, or to lay up and take a round-busting bogey or worse out of play.
But that decision has been rendered essentially obsolete by modern players and their equipment, who’ve enjoyed playing the hole as a mid-length par 4 in recent years. The longer hitters (and the best players in the world tend to be longer hitters) now hit 3-wood off the tee, as they now hit their 3-woods 280ish and can turn them over from right to left far easier than drivers. They’re then left with a 190ish shot downhill, which is a 7- or -6iron for most. If you did sack up and hit driver, as Bubba Watson did during the final round of his 2014 Masters victory, you might have as little in as 9 iron.
The hole simply has not played the way it was designed to. Enter the greencoats of Augusta National, who have the duty and the resources to constantly tweak their course to ensure it challenges the world’s best players when they visit every April. Toward that end, the club purchased land behind the 13th tee years ago from neighboring Augusta Country Club, prompting speculation that they’d add some beef to 13—just as they did to 15, which debuted a new tee box in 2022 that added some 20 yards to the back nine’s other par 5. Now, 13 appears to have had its makeover, as Eureka Earth published aerial photos of the 13th to Twitter last week showing a teebox that looks a good 30-to-40 yards behind the old one. It’s still not clear whether they plan to use the tee for the Masters, but given how finished it looks (complete with a stone retaining wall around the teeing ground and flowers surrounding it), that seems to be the plan.
I’m a fan of the change, not because of the way it’ll impact the length of approach shots into the green. I like it because it puts driver back in the hands of the Rory McIlroys and Jon Rahms of the world. That’s such an easier tee shot if you can aim 3-wood at the trees right, knowing that if it turns over it’s perfect, and if it doesn’t it’ll likely leave you short of the trees with a look at the green. It becomes a far more intimidating prospect if you have to hit driver to have a realistic chance of reaching the green in two, which will be the case if it’s stretched out to the 540-550 range. The vast majority of players will still be able to reach the green in two if they do indeed hit a good tee shot, but the hole now requires a player to step up and hit two quality shots on the back nine on Sunday to set up an eagle chance, rather than one.
It’s yet another example of Augusta adapting with the times, though it should be noted that very few courses across the world have the ability to continue tweaking their course to fit the modern game. Our conversation with Webb Simpson on last week’s Fore Play podcast veered into golf course design, and he lauded the changes Augusta made to 15 because it leveled the playing field. Before Augusta added 20 yards to that hole, short hitters were at a massive disadvantage because they could not fly their ball onto the downslope in the fairway. So a ball that flew 280 yards would finish at 285 yards, while one that flew 300 would kick forward and trickle out to 330. The changes, then, leveled the playing field without removing all of the longer hitters’ advantage. The tweaks to 13 should accomplish the same; it’ll force virtually the entire field to hit driver. If the longer guys fit their drivers in between the water and the trees, they’ll still have the advantage of having a shorter shot in. As it should be.
Turns out the Player Impact Program is about golf, mostly
The Player Impact Program isn’t a social media contest after all. Last week’s results proved as much, with Twitter-less Scottie Scheffler finishing 6th in the standings and Twitter Darling Max Homa taking 14th.
The PIP takes on extra significant this year, as in addition to keeping the biggest stars happy, it functions to identify the players who’ll be exempt into the 13 “elevated events” on the new-look PGA TOUR that begins in 2023. Essentially, these 23—the original top 20 PIP finishers plus three additional players the Tour paid because, they claim, they’d have qualified by the PIP criteria going forward—are the guys guaranteed to play on the “A” Tour in 2023. And yes, there’s now an “A” Tour and a “B” Tour within the PGA Tour. Webb told us as much in our conversation with him, and Harris English, who’ll appear on the podcast next week, said the same thing unprompted.
The issue with the PIP is the initial messaging, which did indeed make this seem like a popularity contest decided by how many followers or retweets a guy might have. In reality, the social-media sect played a small role in determining the A Tour. Here’s how the top 10 finishers placed in the MVP Index, which is the tour’s chosen metric for measuring social media relevancy, according to official PGA Tour documents obtained by Barstool Sports.
1. Tiger Woods, 1st
2. Rory McIlroy, 11th
3. Jordan Spieth, 4th
4. Justin Thomas, 2nd
5. Jon Rahm, 17th
6. Scottie Scheffler, 57th
7. Xander Schauffele, 15th
8. Matt Fitzpatrick, 15th
9. Will Zalatoris, 44th
10. Tony Finau, 23rd
Max Homa, for those interested, ranked third in the MVP index and 14th overall, good for $3 million. But help me understand how Rory McIlroy finished 11th in MVP Index while Shane Lowry finished 5th? Start with the fact that McIlroy has nearly 10x the Instagram following as Lowry and more than 10x the twitter followers. The MVP Index claims to factor in social media searches/discussions, as well, but that would seem to only play into McIlroy’s hands. He served as the de facto spokesman for the PGA Tour throughout the year, and his candor drew significant praise and criticism throughout the year on social media. And we’re to believe that he finished behind both Fitzpatrick and Lowry in the social media category?
Tiger aside—and you have to view him as his own separate case—the rest of the top 10 seems much closer to a power ranking of golfers by ability rather than popularity…with the exception of Patrick Cantlay, who finished 19th despite ranking No. 4 in the world. That’s ironic, as Cantlay has been perhaps the most vocal opponent of the PIP and has said he does not believe the PGA Tour itself should incentivize self-promotion from its players. Turns out, you don’t need to do much self-promoting in order to win the money. Just ask Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler or Will Zalatoris.
—Cameron Smith flew home to Australia for the first time in three years to play in the Australian PGA Championship. At world No. 3, he was by far the highest-ranked player amongst a pretty weak field…but he did win the tournament by three shots. As we’ve discussed on here and on the podcast, that’s called a Power Move—entering a weak-ish tournament as the best player and then winning the damn thing. Named, of course, for Seamus Power’s watershed victory at this fall’s Butterfield Bermuda Championship.
Much has been written about Smith’s return home, most of it dripping in sentimentality. His first time back in Australia. He’s teared up upon returning home. It means so much to him. I found most of it pretty self-indulgent…the guy’s worth a gazillion dollars and plays golf for a living. He’s not exactly chained to a desk from 9-5, Monday to Friday. The notion that he “couldn’t” go home because of some COVID quarantine restrictions is pretty funny, as he could’ve just fired up the jet and spent an extended period of time whenever he wants. No one was holding a gun to his head “forcing” him to play 25 events per year for the last few years. That was his choice. But I digress.
Smith will now attempt to win the Australian Open and wrap up a remarkable year that saw him claim stare down the world No. 1 to shoot 34 under and set a PGA Tour record in Hawaii, steal the Players Championship with a blistering 10-birdie final-round 64, leapfrog Rory to win the 150th Open at St. Andrews, jump to LIV Golf in the prime of his career, win his second LIV start and now claim his third Australian PGA Championship. That’s quite the 2022.
—Tiger Woods officially committed to playing with his son, Charlie, in the PNC Championship on Dec. 17-18 in Orlando. It’ll mark the third straight year that Woods plays in the two-day exhibition at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club. The format is a scramble, and Woods has rode a cart during the past two years. Still, it’s significant that Woods feels well enough to commit to three straight weeks of televised golf: the Hero World Challenge this week, the Match with Rory, JT and Spieth next, and the PNC the following week.
To answer the question I know’s coming next: it’s my belief that he’ll play his first event of the 2023 at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February. Woods now hosts the event, and he’s trying to make it “his” just as Jack Nicklaus is synonymous with the Memorial and Arnold Palmer was with Bay Hill. Toward that end, I believe he’ll play in the tournament to bring as many eyeballs to it as possible. I don’t think he’ll play another event besides Riv before the Masters, but as always it depends on the condition of his leg. We should know more after this week.
—Collin Morikawa's feeling extra relaxed as he heads to the Bahamas for the Hero this week…that's because wedding planning is in the rearview mirror. The world No. 10 and longtime girlfriend Katherine Zhu tied the knot in an intimate ceremony this past weekend. Now he'll look to end his year with a W.
—LIV has reportedly poached one of the PGA Tour's venues. Per Golfweek, El Camaleon Golf Course at Mayakoba is reportedly set to host LIV's opener next February. This makes sense on a number of levels. First, the World Wide Technology Championship at Mayakoba was part of the PGA Tour's fall swing, which has been just decimated by the new schedule that'll see most of the big boys take extended breaks during the fall season. There's also Abraham Ancer and Carlos Ortiz, the top two Mexican players, who both left the PGA Tour to join LIV…surely with at least some knowledge that LIV would bring events to Mexico—events that, crucially, will include LIV's top players as they're contracted to play them all. There were two PGA Tour events in Mexico this year, the Vidanta Open and the WWT Championship, but neither drew top quality fields. Then there's El Camaleon Golf Course, which is designed by Norman. Lastly, the multimillion dollar hosting fee the resort will receive didn't hurt.
—The Black Friday/Cyber Monday sale’s raging on at Store.Barstoolsports.com, and while I may be a tiny bit biased, it doesn’t get any better than the Fore Play Merch. Everything on the site is still 20% off, plus we dropped a few Peter Millar Cyber Monday exclusives that’re straight fire. Get yours now.
If you spend at least $100 in the store, you’ll be entered to win a full day at my home course, Quaker Ridge Golf Club near NYC, with me. We’ll play, hang and be merry. It's a magical place. Get on it.
—As a reminder, I’ll be doing one big Monday Morning Rap next week that you won’t want to miss. It’ll be a recap of a most crazy year in golf. After that, we’ll break for the holidays to refuel for January, when the real fun starts.
Until next week,