It’s safe to wonder if we’ve seen the last of Tiger Woods in the Masters Tournament.
Last week’s announcement that Woods had undergone his fourth – and most significant – back surgery has called into question his future in golf. Despite declaring his spinal fusion surgery a “success,” there’s no guarantee Woods will ever play again. Former PGA Tour player Dudley Hart played only once in four years following his first spinal fusion surgery in 2009.
“I look forward to getting back to a normal life, playing with my kids, competing in professional golf and living without the pain,” Woods said.
It’s revealing that playing golf is ranked third on that list of post-surgical priorities.
Woods, 41, has missed three of the last four Masters because of his injured back. It’s clearly a tournament he hates sitting out based on the fact that he usually draws out his decision until the eve of tournament week when all hope is exhausted.
Sometimes you never see the end coming. It’s possible the last time we saw Woods play at Augusta was when he limped off with a bogey on the final hole of 2015 to finish T17. Woods and his fans deserve a more dignified sunset.
The lingering hope for Woods’ eventual return to Augusta is based on one huge advantage – lifetime exemption. He could sit out the next decade letting his back heal and decide to tee it up at Augusta in 2027 if he wants. He could decide to give up all other competitive golf and make the Masters his only start every April.
Other major winners or perennial top-50 players don’t have that option without a green jacket hanging in the Champions Locker room. We often take for granted they will return until suddenly they’re gone.
Ernie Els has been at Augusta 23 of the last 24 years, but his five-year exemption for winning his fourth major at the 2012 British Open just expired. Having fallen almost outside the top 400 in the world, it will take a significant reversal of form for the 47-year-old South African to return.
Els is not alone on the list of questionable returns. Jim Furyk, two weeks shy of turning 47, has played in 20 Masters since 1996, but the former U.S. Open champion has slipped to 67th in the world and is outside the top 125 in the FedEx Cup points. He could be concentrating on his Ryder Cup captaincy rather than Masters prep next spring.
You could put together an all-star European Ryder Cup team with prominent players not currently eligible for next year’s Masters. As it stands, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington are on the outside with no guarantee of ever getting back in.
Westwood, 44, was runner-up at Augusta only last year and was lurking on the leaderboard again three weeks ago before a back-nine 39 on Sunday cost him a top-12 finish and guaranteed return for the 19th time. He’s been clinging to the top-50 bubble since 2015 and is currently on the outside at No. 53.
Poulter, 41, missed the Masters this year for the first time since 2006 and temporarily failed to earn enough money at the deadline of his major medical extension to retain his PGA Tour card before the tour rechecked its math and granted him status Saturday. At No. 195 in the world, however, rebuilding his imperiled Ryder Cup résumé is more pressing than getting back to Augusta.
Luke Donald, 39, was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2012, but he fell outside the top 50 for the first time in 11 years after missing the cut at the 2015 Masters and considered quitting the game. Currently No. 72, he’s never fallen outside the top 100 and finished runner-up in three PGA Tour events in the last 13 months but missed two consecutive Masters.
Relatively recent major winners have exhausted five-year exemptions and found it hard to get back having tumbled from the top 50. Among the missing this year were McDowell, Keegan Bradley and Darren Clarke. Like Els, Webb Simpson’s U.S. Open exemption expired this year. Jason Dufner’s PGA pass will run out after next April. Another former world No. 1 drifting toward the top-50 bubble is Martin Kaymer, who still has two more Masters starts locked in. A trio of 2009 major winners – Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover and Y.E. Yang – haven’t played Augusta since 2014. Geoff Ogilvy has played once since 2012.
Of course, there is always hope of a Hail Mary as long as guys keep playing on tour. Davis Love III won a PGA Tour event at age 51 to make it back to the 2016 Masters after missing seven of the previous eight years. Harrington briefly rekindled his career with a Honda Classic victory in 2015 to get back to Augusta after his eligibility lapsed.
Greg Norman made a return trip to Augusta in 2009 after a six-year gap by finishing third at age 53 in a cameo appearance at the 2008 British Open. David Duval did the same kind of thing in 2010 when he came out of the where-are-they-now file to finish runner-up in the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage. Presidents Cup captain Steve Stricker made it back this year thanks to a fourth-place finish in last year’s Open.
The hard truth, however, is that getting back to Augusta once elite top-50 status is gone is not easy. Ask native Augustan Charles Howell, who’s made it back only once since 2008 despite being one of the most consistent earners on the PGA Tour.
Tiger Woods doesn’t have to worry about any of that. Augusta National will always welcome him back.
All he has to do is be able to swing. The legitimate question is, will the only swings he has left be reserved as an honorary starter?