2022 American Express leaderboard: Patrick Cantlay

The golf season for 2022 is set to begin. Despite the fact that the majority of the attention is focused on the new year, Tiger Woods’ performance at the PNC Championship in 2021, which took place a couple of months ago, continues to resonate. When he looked so… shockingly (?) good, it became impossible to resist the temptation to speculate about where he might tee it up first in 2022. Several very specific and obvious landing spots are on the horizon for him in the coming year, but one stands out above the rest — and it’s probably not the one you’d expect.

Prior to getting into that, we should talk about a more general timetable. Obviously, what Woods says does not always match up with what he does (as is true of all professional athletes), but he did point out two distinct realities when he held his first press conference in the Bahamas at the Hero World Challenge at the beginning of December, after a year that had been marred by injuries.

1. “I don’t foresee this leg ever being what it used to be, hence I’ll never have the back what it used to be, and clock’s ticking. I’m getting older, I’m not getting any younger. All that combined means that a full schedule and a full practice schedule and the recovery that it would take to do that, no, I don’t have any desire to do that. But to ramp up for a few events a year as I alluded to yesterday as Mr. Hogan did, he did a pretty good job of it, and there’s no reason that I can’t do that and feel ready.”

Tiger will not be playing 20 times a year, and he probably will not be playing 10 times a year. At this stage of his career, at his age with the number of operations he’s had, playing 6-8 times a year is a ceiling that used to be a floor. Here’s another hint he gave.

2. “As far as playing at the Tour level, I don’t know when that’s going to happen.”

At the PNC Championship, we got a partial answer to that question when Tiger Woods and his son Charlie came within one shot of winning the event after shooting a 57 on Sunday in the scramble format. To be sure, Tiger was riding in a cart the entire time and appeared to be completely worn out afterward, but he was swinging the club at an incredible rate for someone who could have lost his leg just a few months earlier.

After their round on Sunday at the PNC, Matt Kuchar did everything but declare Tiger Woods the favorite to win the Masters in April (he’s currently 40-1, according to Caesars Sportsbook).

When asked about his plans for the future, Tiger, however, rebuffed all of it.

“No, no, no, no,” he said when asked whether he thought Kuchar’s comments were accurate. “I totally disagree. I’m not at that level. I can’t compete again these guys right now, no. It’s going to take a lot of work to get to where I feel like I can compete at these guys and be at a high level.”

He reiterated that he is “not going to play a full schedule ever again” and will pick and choose his events and “even then, my body might not cooperate with that.”

So that’s the background as the year 2021 transitions into the year 2022. This year marked the first time since 1991 that Tiger did not compete in at least one official OWGR event, and I can’t imagine that streak continuing for another two years, especially after watching him at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club a few weeks ago.

There are, of course, some limitations. Perhaps his back, knee, leg, neck, or any of the countless other body parts he’s had carved up over the years aren’t cooperating, and he’s unable to compete at a high level on the golf course. The fact that he was trying to grind out a win with his son on that Sunday in Orlando demonstrated to everyone present what Tiger is still all about: competing at the highest level possible in sports, if not winning.

“The competitive juices, they are never going to go away,” said Woods. “This is my environment. This is what I’ve done my entire life. I’m just so thankful to be able to have this opportunity to do it again. Earlier this year was not a very good start to the year, and it didn’t look very good.”

So where might we see the competitive juices again, and what might Woods’ schedule look like in 2022? Once he starts playing, he’ll almost certainly — body-willing — play all the majors he can. But where (and when) will he start? There are 5-7 natural entrances for the 15-time major winner, and here is one man’s guess based on all the evidence we have as he turned 46 last month and is taking his broken body (but still sharp game) into a new year.

Genesis Invitational (Feb. 17): Though the symmetry of returning to the event that took place just before his horrific accident in 2021 would be nice, this one is just too soon for Tiger. I would be more surprised if he played here than I was that he played the PNC Championship with Charlie.

Arnold Palmer Invitational (Mar. 3): If he wants to play the Masters but doesn’t want to play it as his first event (like he did in 2010 when he finished T4 at Augusta), then this is a natural spot. I don’t really buy it, though. I think we’re looking at either Masters or a different event later in the year. I don’t think we see Tiger on the course before April because I don’t think he’s as worried about rust as he is worried about getting his body rested and healthy for major championship golf.

Masters (April 7): It’s easy to see, isn’t it? Fifteen months after the accident, Tiger teeing it up with other greats at the grandest cathedral this country has to offer. A celebration of his career in a week that’s very unlikely to end in a made cut — much less contention for another trophy — but nonetheless is one of the best moments of the entire golf year. Walking Augusta is a concern — especially as his first tournament back — but this is definitely in play in a way I didn’t imagine it would be just a month ago.

PGA Championship (May 19): In my head, his first event back is either going to be the Masters or the Open Championship, but this one is certainly feasible. Six weeks is an eternity for him, so the distance between Augusta National and this second major of the year — and how healthy he can get in the interim — might make the decision for him.

Memorial (June 2): This would make sense if the PGA is too soon or he doesn’t want to battle mighty Southern Hills. The weather will be warm enough here for him to feel confident about getting the body loose. It would also be a nice, low-stakes tune-up for the last two majors of the year.

U.S. Open (June 16): This would be a bizarre re-entry point for Tiger, who has not fared well at U.S. Opens over the past decade (he doesn’t have a top 10 since 2010). I would be surprised if he put his body through the necessary tribulations it takes to tussle with a U.S. Open course and setup. If he’s already returned, then perhaps, but I would be stunned if this was his first tournament back.

Open Championship (July 14): The Open gives Woods the most time to heal, and the 150th edition at a place where he’s already won two major championships? Come on, it’s the perfect marriage of golf history and living legend. Woods had wonder in his eyes when he was asked recently about potentially returning at the Old Course in July. He knows that while his opportunities at Augusta National are more expansive (he can feasibly play there for the next 20 years), the window on playing the Old Course at an Open is closing. As a true competitor there, this one or the next one — sometime later in the 2020s — will probably be his last one. 

That will be meaningful, and no matter where we see him in 2022, I imagine he’ll exert tremendous effort to make sure he’s teeing it up at Burn on July 14 with the Claret Jug in his overwhelming shadow. What an incredible scene that would be.

Read the original article on CBS Sports.

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