Tiger Woods' Performance in Return Will Define 2015 Masters

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2015

LA JOLLA, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the 18th green of the north course during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course on February 5, 2015 in La Jolla, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Ultimately, sport is one of the biggest theaters of American culture, and every theater needs its headliners.

Even if those headliners are past their prime.

The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club is golf’s biggest stage, and its biggest name, Tiger Woods, announced Friday that he will play in the 2015 edition. He has been on a leave of absence since Feb. 5, when he withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open, and has only played in seven worldwide events since back surgery in 2014.

Woods commented on his return, per TigerWoods.com: “I'm playing in the Masters. It's obviously very important to me, and I want to be there. I've worked a lot on my game and I'm looking forward to competing. I'm excited to get to Augusta and I appreciate everyone's support."

The 2015 Masters just received its lead story.

Woods is no longer the unbeatable superstar he was in his prime, but he is still the most recognizable name in golf and will draw in casual fans when it comes to television ratings and even the galleries at Augusta. Sports fans love comeback stories, and this one involves arguably the biggest name in sports of the past 20 years outside of Michael Jordan.

Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors touched on the television angle, while former NBA great Scottie Pippen suggested golf is simply more interesting with Woods as part of the equation:

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Eric Seger @EricSeger33

Television ratings spike on deck. RT @TigerWoods: I'm playing in the Masters. Thanks for all the support. http://t.co/38btCbK9r6

Scottie Pippen @ScottiePippen

Does @TigerWoods have what it takes to make things interesting in the Masters? I hope so, it's definitely more fun to watch when he's on.

Woods’ impact goes beyond the boost he will provide to viewership totals, though. His performance on the actual golf course will define how this year’s Masters is remembered, regardless of where he finishes on the leaderboard.

Say by some chance he actually returns to form and wins after taking so much time off and looking like a shell of himself in his most recent performances.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

It may seem far-fetched, but he does have four Masters titles and returned from extended time off and nearly won the green jacket in 2010 before finishing in fourth place. He understands what it takes to win at Augusta and became such a transcendent star for a reason.

Suddenly, the chase for Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles would be back on considering it would be Woods’ 15th. It would also represent the start of a potential second act to Woods’ career, where he bounces back from injuries and time off to revitalize his golf game and add to his legacy.

The Masters wouldn’t just be sports news if this hypothetical happened, it would be national news.

In case you forgot just how good Woods can be, here is a reminder from the PGA Tour's YouTube channel:

While that is the long-shot scenario, those storylines will still be in place if he even competes for a top-10 spot, because he took time off to iron out the kinks in his game and then came back and turned in an impressive performance.

It was arguably a bigger story in 2010 that Woods nearly won the Masters after so much time off than the fact that Phil Mickelson actually won it, and Mickelson is a household name himself.

Of course, there is the flip side of the coin if Woods once again struggles and either misses the cut or has no chance of winning. After all, he shot an 82 in January at the Waste Management Phoenix Open and hasn’t looked like himself on the course for quite some time.

It will further remove him from the once untouchable superstar who dominated the Tour, which is a story in and of itself, and make it even clearer that Nicklaus’ 18 majors are not exactly well within reach at the age of 39.

What’s more, the winner’s victory would be framed in a way that included Woods, especially if the champion is one of the younger stars like Rory McIlroy (25), Jordan Spieth (21), Rickie Fowler (26) or Patrick Reed (24).

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

The Masters could theoretically serve as a final “passing of the torch” moment if Woods doesn’t come even close to competing with these current and budding superstars even after theoretically ironing out some of his game. 

That may not be entirely fair to Woods (or the winner) since he has been off for so long, but thriving under pressure is what he did best in his prime as arguably the greatest golfer of all time. This is just the next challenge.

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