1st Impression from Tiger Woods' Return at the Masters

Joe SteigmeyerFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2015

Apr 12, 2015; Augusta, GA, USA; Tiger Woods on the 2nd green during the final round of The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Tiger Woods returned to the 2015 Masters with a bang, finishing tied for 17th place at five strokes under par to befuddle skeptical fans and critics alike.

Those four rounds at Augusta National showed glimpses of the old Tiger, both good and bad, suggesting he still has a ways to go before returning to full vintage form—but he’s getting there, and that’s a good sign.

Many thought he would never again be a fringe contender at a major championship, much less at Augusta 63 days after withdrawing from his last competitive outing. However, the four-time Masters winner shot rounds of 73, 69, 68 and 73 to inject new life into a career even some optimistic fans thought may be nearing its end.

Tiger rewarded patrons with a little bit of everything at this Masters: a resurgent short game contrasted with poor driving, pressure putts complemented by emphatic fist pumps, par-five dominance offset by erratic scoring everywhere else and dramatic injury going hand-in-hand with excessive profanity.

The man had it all, and many fans were just happy to see him back:

Chase Russell @chasemrussell

He threw a club and a fist pump in the same hole. HE'S BACK! 🐯 #TigerWoods

Bruce Donnelly @DonnellyBruce

#TigerWoods is the reason I watch golf. I just don't watch when he's not playing. It's as simple as that. #Masters2015

But what can we take away from this grab-bag medley of Tiger’s greatest hits? Well, just like any Fleetwood Mac reunion in recent memory, there were a number of takeaways on either side of the fence that made you both revel in remembrance of past glory and wonder what the future would hold for an aging icon.

Here’s a look at some of those takeaways from Tiger’s surprising return to major form at Augusta:

Yes, We’re Calling it a Return to Major Form

Granted, this was not the mic-dropping performance of his 12-stroke Masters' debut demolition in 1997, but Woods did make an aggressive return to the rarified air near the top of a major leaderboard.

What’s more, that return to the top 20 was clearly not a fluke round because he sustained it for much of the tournament.

Were it not for the fact that he missed all but two fairways on Sunday—and, of course, the fact that Jordan Spieth had apparently stolen Tiger’s ’97 Masters mojo like a time-traveling Goldmember in Austin Powers—Woods could have been in contention for this year’s green jacket.

Considering Tiger missed the Masters and U.S. Open last year before finishing 69th at the Open Championship and missing the cut at the PGA Championship, it would be fair to say finishing T-17 in the first major of 2015 was a big step in the right direction.

As Sports Illustrated’s Ryan Asselta put it:

RyanAsselta @RyanAsselta

#TigerWoods may not win #TheMasters, but I think he's answered the question as to whether he can win another major. Only a matter of time.

Most importantly, though, Tiger didn’t implode or withdraw. He had some ups and downs in the final round (and not all of them were of the good, greenside kind), but he stuck it out to earn a more-than-respectable place on the leaderboard.

If he’s going to contend at future majors, he’s going to have to be comfortable and confident with his overall game plan. Being able to look back on the previous major and see a top-20 finish is a great way to build that confidence.

And speaking of going forward...

How Will that Injury on No. 9 Affect Tiger?

Tiger walked into ninth-hole pines on Sunday looking to replicate his birdie on the eighth, but he came out grasping his wrist looking like he was in serious pain after his second shot.

What happened?

“I didn't know there was a tree root there. I drilled the club straight into it,” said Woods, per Bob Harig of ESPN. “It didn't move, but my body kept moving. There's a little joint that popped out, and I was able to somehow put it back in, which didn't feel very good. At least I got it back in; I could move my hand again.”

He then casually added: “It's sore. I'm not going to be lifting any weights for a while.”

Some fans were a little incredulous of Woods’ self-assessment:

Shake @beaglecaptain

Was concerned what #TigerWoods would do if his game had in fact left him, good to know he has career in Orthopaedics to fall back on.

However, since there was not a professional medical assessment performed at the time, no one but Tiger could really speak to the severity of the injury. Regardless, Woods not only managed to save par on the ninth, but he also went on to complete the back nine at even par.

So, either Tiger managed a solid back nine (including an eagle on 13 and a birdie on 15) while injured, or the injury wasn’t as bad as we thought. Either way, it was a relief to anyone who immediately thought “withdrawal” when he dropped his iron on the release at nine.

The last thing fans want to see is another debilitating injury like the one that forced his withdrawal from the Farmers Insurance Open in February, so the fact he was able to finish his round was a good sign both on the day and for the near future.

Speaking of the near future...

Tiger Realizes Time is His Frenemy*

*The author preemptively apologizes for the necessary use of the term “frenemy”

After the Masters, Tiger said, per CBSSports.com’s Kyle Porter: “[I’m] Not going to be [playing] for a while. I have a little time off, and go back to the drawing board, work on it again, and refine what I'm doing. I really like what I'm doing, I got my distance back, and everything is good."

Whether that has something to do with the injury or not, it’s a good sign the 39-year-old is planning his future carefully.

This Masters performance after his 63-day hiatus from competitive golf proved Tiger can make significant strides toward fixing his game if he steps away from the public eye to iron out the kinks on his home practice green rather than trying to retool his swing under media scrutiny and competitive stress.

Considering his advancing age, he is making the right call.

The Tiger of 2014 saw his window to catch Jack Nicklaus closing fast, which prompted him to return from back surgery in a matter of months rather than, say, the full year it took others to recover. His rush to get back to winning majors resulted in the aforementioned 69th-place finish at the Open and a missed cut at the PGA.

With 2015 now well underway, it seems Tiger has learned time is a better ally than adversary.

His finish at the Masters showed Woods that biding his time and picking his battles will result in better finishes than going after tournaments for which he’s neither mentally nor physically prepared.

In other words, going into the Masters at 100 percent yielded better results than going into the Farmers Insurance Open at less than 100 percent, even though the former was a far tougher competition.

Before the Masters, Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said, per Golf.com’s Coleman McDowell: “Given what we’ve seen, it’s unimaginable to me that in this short period of time he would have been able to come to any sort of manageable level of short game.”

Midway through this year’s Masters, Tiger’s short game had Golf.com analysts pulling a complete 180 on those sentiments, as the below video verifies:

In two months, Tiger went from having a train-wreck short game to having critics talk about it as the cornerstone of a “home-run” week at the Masters.

He can still perform miracles in the sport of golf, but Tiger is now realizing the biggest miracles are the ones he conjures up away from the cameras.

Woods may be aging, but what he’s lost in youth he’s starting to make up for with wisdom.

That’s Nice, But Let’s Not Forget How Much Youth He’s Lost

OK, so no one can hide from the fact he missed all but two fairways in the final round. Tiger’s game still isn’t perfect, but the point is he’s getting there (and far faster than anyone—present company included—thought he would).

The point is Tiger saw the biggest flaw in his game and was able to turn it into a strength in a matter of a couple months. As he said, per ESPN:

Considering where I was at Torrey and Phoenix, to make that complete change and the release pattern, I'm pretty proud of what I've done. To make my short game my strength again was pretty sweet. That's something that I've worked my butt off to get to that point.

The 14-time major winner may still be lacking in driving accuracy and the kind of Jordan Spieth-esque putting that is crucial for winning majors, but considering how incredibly he was able to restore his power and short game, there’s no reason Tiger can’t do the same for his other trouble spots.

Back-to-back rounds in the 60s—along with NSFW profanity, like in the video below—afforded patrons a look (and listen) at a Tiger Woods many thought was lost to the history books.

Good or bad, the 39-year-old demonstrated this week that he still has the determination and skill to play at the highest level. If he retains the positives from Augusta and is able to bring the rest of his game up to that level, we’re going to see a lot more Tiger Woods near the top of the leaderboard.

Expect Tiger to play fewer PGA Tour outings this year, but also expect top-20 finishes from those he does choose to enter. If he plays smart, look for a 100 percent Tiger in the final pairing of the PGA Championship in August.