Let’s play a game: I’ll give you five career details about a man playing in this year’s Masters, and you tell me how likely he is to win:
- This man is 42 years old. There have been only 22 grand slams won by men age 42 or older in the history of golf.
- This man is injury plagued.
- This man hasn’t won a professional golf tournament in almost five full years.
- This man hasn’t won a major in almost ten full years.
- This man’s life has seemed to be on a semi-permanent downward spiral since Thanksgiving 2009.
If you looked at these details without context, obviously you would be quite skeptical of that player’s hopes to wear the green jacket. If someone suggested that you spend actual money backing this golfer, you would either laugh or become angry, depending on your disposition.
And yet—as you well know—these are not the biographic details of some journeyman golfer without a prayer. This the résumé of one Tiger Woods, the greatest golfer in the history of the game. And with Tiger, nothing is ever so simple.
Paddy Power’s current odds have Tiger listed fourth among the 87 players currently in the Masters field (at 12-1, he trails only Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Rory McIlroy), and he’s even higher at some American sites. The no. 1 player in the world, Dustin Johnson, is seen as less likely to win than a man who hasn’t hoisted a trophy since 2013.
It’s tempting to see this as a sucker’s bet, especially if you’re blind to history.
But Masters week is rife with “predicted winners” articles, many written by writers who have covered the game for decades, and almost all of those lists include Tiger Woods—some at the very top.
So what gives? Can Tiger actually win this thing? Let’s drop our cynic’s cap for a moment, and look at a few reasons why a result that seemed far-fetched just months ago might be more than just possible—it might be likely.
First, Tiger is playing extremely well. The last five years have been a constant tease, and it follows a familiar formula—Tiger takes some swings, rumours circulate that he’s crushing the ball, he comes back to some meaningless tournament, plays well, the excitement hits fever pitch, and then he gets hurt.
So far, 2018 looks different. Not only has he played six tournaments without injury since returning at the Hero World Challenge, but he’s done extremely well—in his last three events on the PGA Tour, he’s finished 12th, second, and fifth.
That’s far better than anything we’ve seen from him in years, and despite his age, it gives some credence to the idea that the fusion surgery on his back actually worked, and we may get a few more vintage Tiger years before it’s all over.
Second, the Masters is the most unique tournament in golf, and the things that make it unique all play to Tiger’s favour. For one thing, the field is small on a normal year, and this year it has the fewest players in 21 years.
Tiger will only have beat 86 other men to win at Augusta, whereas a normal week would see him pitted against 150. When you factor in the knowledge that some of those 86 are amateurs or former winners past their primes or other loophole-entrants without a real shot, the actual number of potential winners is even smaller.
Factor in the rookies (more on them below), and it’s not crazy to eliminate about 20 players in the field. By that fact alone, Tiger’s chances improve before he ever swings a club.
Then there’s the course itself, which consistently rewards a certain type of player—it’s the only major that stays in the same place year after year, and it’s no mistake that we see the same names on the leaderboard each spring.
We all know about the usual suspects like Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth, but even an old-timer like Fred Couples seems to threaten a top-ten run each year despite a bad back that keeps him from competing consistently even on the senior tour. Tiger is among this group—he loves Augusta, and Augusta loves him. It’s a perfect style match.
By that same token, the Masters rewards familiarity more than any other major, and perhaps more than any other tournament on Earth.
There hasn’t been a rookie winner since 1979 (and even that was a fluke), and it pays to know every nook and cranny of this course when the pressure mounts.
Tiger’s intimate knowledge of Augusta gives him an advantage even against the strongest younger players.
Don’t get me wrong—he’ll still have to play incredible golf to have a chance. But if puts together a few good rounds, that inherited wisdom could be the difference in a tight final round when the margins are razor-thin.
And what about temperament? This current incarnation of the game’s greatest player seems calmer, more accepting of fate, and he even smiles more.
Does that mean he’s lost his edge?
I think not—I think it reflects instead a man emerging from the other side of a harrowing life crisis, and I reckon he brings with him the kind of perspective he lacked in his volatile younger days.
Moreover, for a man of his age and skill, it’s a perspective he desperately needs in order to win.
He has a second life in golf here, he knows it’s unlikely and temporary, and I believe he’s prepared to seize this chance for as long as he’s able.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot stacked against him, and that includes Father Time, a generation of incredible young talents (all of whom, from Spieth to McIlroy to Day to Thomas, seem to be in excellent form), and a decade-long major drought.
But when you factor in form, temperament, the vagaries of this singularly odd event, and perhaps a bit of that classic Tiger magic, the answer to the question in the title becomes surprisingly clear: Yes, he could do it.
Against all odds, Tiger Woods could absolutely win the 2018 Masters.