What’s next for Tiger Woods after his Masters comeback? The answers are mixed

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What does Tiger Woods' Masters Sunday return say about the future of his golf game?

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — What’s next for Tiger Woods? Goodness, what’s first?

An ice bath, if the scene near the clubhouse at Augusta National is any indication. Woods, playing for the first time since the car accident that nearly took his left leg, looked physically and emotionally wiped in the aftermath of his first tournament start in 18 months. On Masters Sunday, he walked with a noticeable limp down the back nine — a stupor that grew worse as he walked out of the clubhouse back toward the parking lot after his round.

It’s difficult to fathom the full scope of Woods’s week at the Masters. On its own, the job was enough to overcome Tiger during these last four days. Four tournament rounds at Augusta National with a bum leg and a blunted game is hell for a professional golfer with a decent putting stroke. Woods didn’t even have that at the Masters, where he finished tied for last in putts-per-hole.

In truth, though, the job was the easy part of the week, compared to everything else. At the Masters, Tiger’s every waking moment was a grind, a 24-hour cycle of recovery-rest-activate-perform. A cycle that won’t stop until well after his private jet returns to Jupiter.

“I don’t think people really understand,” Tiger said Sunday. “It’s one thing to play with my son at a hit-and-giggle, but it’s another thing to play in a major championship.”

Tiger battled pain all week at Augusta National. Stephen Denton

His point? Major championships take a tremendous toll on a healthy body. On a still-recovering body, major championships can be damn-near debilitating.

Woods hardly looked the part of a major championship contender at Augusta National — a venue suited perfectly to his strengths. He was inconsistent with his driver, noncommittal with his irons, underwhelming with his wedges and downright unreliable with his putter. He was 22(!) strokes off the lead by the time the final pairing teed off this afternoon. And yet he was certain that what we saw from him on Sunday afternoon at the Masters was not the end, but the beginning.

“We’re excited about the prospects of the future, about training, about getting into that gym and doing some other stuff to get my leg stronger, which we haven’t been able to do because it needed more time to heal,” he said. “I think it needs a couple more days to heal after this, but we’ll get back after it, and we’ll get into it.”

Woods is an optimist. He has to be. But three weeks ago, not even an optimist would have considered the possibility of him playing at Augusta.

It seems entirely unfathomable, considering both the scope of his injuries and the state of his career, for even an optimist to predict another Tiger Woods comeback. Then again, would you like to be the one to count him out?

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“Just to be able to play, and not only just to play, but I put up a good first round. I got myself there,” he said. “I don’t quite have the endurance that I would like to have had, but as of a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know if I was going to play in this event.”

So what’s next? Apparently, the Open Championship at St. Andrews, as he confirmed to Sky Sports on Sunday. The Old Course is his favorite course in the world, and St. Andrews has been home to two of his Open Championship victories. Golf’s majors between now and then (the PGA Championship and U.S. Open) are less certain.

“I won’t be playing a full schedule ever again. It will just be the big events,” he said. “I don’t know if I will play Southern Hills or not, but I am looking forward to St. Andrews. That is something that is near and dear to my heart. I’ve won two Opens there, it’s the home of golf, and it’s my favorite golf course in the world. So I will be there for that one. Anything in between that, I don’t know. I will try, there’s no doubt. This week I will try and get ready for Southern Hills, and we’ll see what this body is able to do.”

What’s next, it seems, is more of the same from Tiger Woods, albeit less frequently.

That sounds ridiculous, but any conversation surrounding Tiger Woods requires an element of suspended reality. There are better questions to ask Tiger Woods: Can he contend at a major? Will his body hold up for four consecutive tournament rounds? How will his body handle a venue other than Augusta National? But that question — what’s next? — has dominated the better part of his last five decades, and the answers to it haven’t frequently been believable.

“For not winning an event, yes,” Woods said, when asked if this week was the greatest achievement of his career. “Yes, without a doubt.”

On Masters Sunday, Tiger’s first competitive event in 18 months did not end in a victory nor in contention, but rather at 13 over … in solo 47th place. The score is irrelevant. That his first competitive event in 18 months happened at all is reason for astonishment. His pain was palpable even at a distance, his weaknesses pronounced even to those who couldn’t see him.

With so many better questions to ask Tiger Woods, why do we care about what’s next?

“Be good guys,” Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava called out toward the scrum waiting for Tiger Sunday. “We’ll see you down the road.”

Because he does too.

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