It appears Tiger Woods' return to competitive golf is imminent, as he has reportedly made accommodations for both The Players Championship and the Memorial Tournament. But at 40 years old and after litany surgeries throughout his career -- including two back surgeries since September -- what can we realistically expect from Big Cat at this point?
Tiger returns at the Memorial Tournament: Increasingly likely
Just because the man booked a hotel room in Ohio doesn’t technically mean he’s playing the Memorial. However, this is the first time Tiger’s made any official indication that he’s ready to return. (Registering for the U.S. Open doesn’t count.)
Besides, what better way to return to the PGA Tour than at a venue you’ve won five times before (the last in 2012) and have never missed a cut? The only courses at which he’d have a warmer welcome would be Bay Hill, where he's won the Arnold Palmer Invitational eight times but which Woods missed in March, or Akron's Firestone C.C., home of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (June 27-July 3), where he’s won eight times. Woods isn't currently eligible for that event.
But what about this nonsense about The Players? Could he return there instead?
Tiger returns at The Players Championship: Unlikely
Playing a tournament in June (like the Memorial, June 2-5) is one thing. Playing the “fifth major” in less than two weeks? No way. Tiger’s travel bookings to Ponte Verda Beach should be perceived as a just-in-case for the rosiest of scenarios. I don’t care how many clinic videos we see on Periscope, Tiger is not ready for competitive golf -- especially at a venue where he’s had lukewarm success outside of two wins (2001, 2013).
Tiger makes the cut at his next tournament: Likely
Assuming he comes back at the Memorial, and considering his past success there, Tiger’s got a good chance at making the cut. The same cannot be said for Sawgrass. The obvious caveat to insert here, of course, is wondering how his butcher block of a lower back will hold up over 36 competitive holes. Remember, Tiger played his first five holes of actual golf this week at an exhibition for the opening of his first U.S. design, Bluejack National.
Tiger’s had three back surgeries since March 2014. Fred Couples might be the only pro golfer who could relate to that frequency of back ailments, and he is limited to an abbreviated schedule on PGA Tour Champions. Finishing 18 holes of competitive PGA Tour golf might be a win in itself for Big Cat.
Tiger plays more than five events this year: Moderately likely
Returning at the beginning of June would bring a lot of tournaments into play, including the U.S. Open (June 13-19), Quicken Loans National (June 23-26), The Greenbrier Classic, the Open Championship and PGA Championship.
Tiger will have to choose his spots more wisely now than ever before in his career. He cannot expect to play week after week, no matter the venue or his success at each in past years. He’s best served to stick to the final three majors this year, the Quicken Loans and possibly the Wyndham Championship before calling it a year.
Tiger wins a tournament in 2016: Unlikely
There’s no way Tiger wins a tournament in 2016, right? Not even the greatest golfer of this generation can return mid-season, play a handful of events and expect to win. It’s not going to happen.
Or can it? Let’s assume Tiger’s a lock to play in each of the remaining majors. Does he round out his schedule with events like the John Deere Classic, Travelers Championship and the Wyndham? While each attracts its share of top-tier players, these aren't Murderers Row events. This should be the year Tiger expands his venue horizons.
Tiger qualifies for the FedEx Cup playoffs: Highly unlikely
There’s no chance. I don’t even know if this is mathematically possible.
On that point...
Tiger wins a major in 2016: Extremely unlikely
Oakmont, Royal Troon and Baltusrol: Those are the venues for the remaining three majors this year, and none of which are cakewalks. However, Woods has a somewhat happy past at each of these places. Tiger finished co-runner-up to Angel Cabrera in the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont. He is one of two golfers to own the course record at Royal Troon (64, Greg Norman), but that was nearly 20 years ago (1997). Woods finished T-4 in the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, two strokes behind Phil Mickelson.
Even with the good finishes at each of these venues, Tiger must feel like they were forever ago.