GOLF.com conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.
1. Tiger Woods was winless since 2013, less than a year removed from a fourth back surgery and playing in just his fifth event in four months, yet he still surprised the golf world when he finished T2 at the Valspar, one behind winner Paul Casey. Woods contended on Sunday but a mediocre iron game and cold putter hampered his run at PGA Tour win No. 80, but his play was still encouraging. Is this the new and improved Tiger we should now come to expect? Or was this more of a one-off that might appear from time to time?
Dylan Dethier, associate editor, GOLF.com (@dylan_dethier): It’s possible I was just getting caught up in the Tampa Tigermania, but I think I’m done being cautious. Everything I saw this week suggests that he’s here to stay. Surreal, isn’t it?
Michael Bamberger, senior writer, GOLF: Ah, youth! Dylan, Tiger is 42 and his back is 60. He’s swinging so hard it makes your back ache. But he can, it is obvious to say, contend, in majors and in minors. If he contends enough he’ll win some percentage of them, just like all the other good players. It’s remarkable, how far he’s come so fast.
Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Michael’s apt comment above puts me in mind of something the great baseball color commentator Jerry Remy said when he was told that one of the Sox was “day to day.” His reply: “We’re all day to day.” Nothing’s guaranteed. To answer the question more directly: both possibilities seem true at the same time. He IS the new and improved Tiger Woods. But he may also only appear from time to time.
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor, GOLF.com (@Jess_Marksbury): Great point, Josh. I guess we never know what the future holds, but this comeback sure looks and feels different from the others. Tiger seems happier on the course. He’s intense, focused, and grinding hard. I sure hope this new (old) normal is here for the long haul.
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@johnwould): Look, he’s barely played golf for two, three years, and in his last two events he has finished 12th (going bogey, double late in the fourth round and dropping from T4) and T2, missing out on a playoff or outright win to Paul Casey, who had 21 putts in the final round. All this at PGA National and Copperhead at Innisbrook. These are NOT traditional Tiger courses. They’re tight and penal and I will be very interested to see how he plays next week at a course he has dominated in the past. I think this all comes down to his health, because his game and his desire is back.
Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, GOLF.com (@Jeff_Ritter): Totally agree — health is the key. I’m going to wince every time I see him take a hard swing for a long time and possibly for forever, but if his back holds up along with his knees, neck, Achilles’ and everything else, this comeback has a chance to attain heights most never thought possible.
2. What did you learn about Tiger this week that you didn’t know before?
Dethier: That he’s as locked in as ever. The putter slams, the biting curse words, the stalking around the green — he’s so emotionally invested in every shot that it tires me out just imagining it.
Bamberger: That he’s all-in on this second act thing. One day he was in the Innisbrook gym at 3:30. In the morning.
Sens: I was struck by the intensity and how comfortable he looked being back in the hunt. At the same time, though, he also has mellower air about him. Fewer expletives and histrionics at poor shots, more acceptance of results.
Marksbury: I’ll second the sense of all-in-ness. There were times watching him over the last few years where we openly questioned why he continued to push himself so hard after each procedure and we wondered how long it would be until he just announced his retirement from competitive play. Now we know why. To see him truly healthy now, it feels silly to have ever wondered if he could possibly mount a successful comeback.
Ritter: This week was proof he could play his way into contention and stay there. He didn’t give himself many great birdie looks on Sunday, but he also never backed up. Title No. 80 will have to wait, but it was another huge step forward.
Wood: That this comeback is very different, but not for his much-improved health. What I saw on Saturday and Sunday was the return of Tiger the artist, and in previous comebacks we have seen Tiger the scientist. Gone were the multiple rehearsals of mechanical feels and talk about getting reps in. Back was the Tiger who was imagining golf shots with his eyes and just letting his body follow. I know he’s put in a TON of work to get his golf swing, his short game, his putting, where he wants them to be, but I would guess that many times in the last year he’s sat down by himself quite a bit and remembered how he used to PLAY this game, and made a point to forget how others have told him to play this game. I don’t think I’m crazy when I say I think meditation and visualization, getting his mind right and getting his creativity back has at least as much to do with his return to form as a sound golf swing and a good short game.
3. Did Tiger just prove he’s a legitimate top 10 favorite for the Masters? Dare we say top five?
Dethier: In Vegas, he’ll be top five, and he’ll get more bets than the rest of the field combined.
Bamberger: Ten is a lot of favorites. I’d be surprised if, come Sunday afternoon, he’s not within two or three shots of the lead.
Sens: Speaking of Vegas, last I checked he was listed at 12 to 1. That’s not a good value proposition, as the gamblers say. But I do think he’ll be close enough to be in the camera’s eye throughout much of Sunday, which, given the way the camera gravitates toward him, basically requires him to make the cut and then stay upright the rest of the way. I’ll give him a finish somewhere in the top 20.
Marksbury: In my mind, Tiger is always a top 10 favorite at the Masters. Even during the worst years of his major slump, he usually found a way to play well at Augusta. He’s definitely in my pool this year.
Wood: Top 10 for sure. And if you were at Innisbrook this week, and you felt and saw the buzz he created — we can only hope that red shirt comes out late on Sunday, because golf is so much better for it.
Ritter: Let’s count them. I’d say that even with a shaky start to the season Spieth is still the top favorite, then in some order I’d go with DJ, JT, Rahm, Rose, Bubba and Phil. Then I might slot Tiger eighth, just ahead of Day, Rory and Fleetwood.
4. How does Phil’s win last week and Tiger’s play this week change the overall landscape of the sport this season and in the foreseeable future? Could this become one of golf’s greatest three- or five-year stretches in history?
Bamberger: It’s astounding, what’s happening on Tour right now. Sam Burns, 21. Tiger Woods, 42. Phil Mickelson, 47. Jordan Spieth, showing himself and us that this game is not that easy. Justin Thomas, showing us that it is. Much to like about it. Dare I say love?
Dethier: Throw in a win for 40-year-old Paul Casey and things are looking up for the aging crowd! Three or five years? That’s tough to say. But this pre-Masters prologue has been incredible, with several of golf’s varied cast of characters showing flashes of their best stuff. As writers and as fans, we like storylines — that’s kind of the point. We’ve got ‘em.
Sens: This is as riveting as the Tour has been in my memory. Will the green jackets ramp up the electricity all the more by pairing Phil and Tiger in the first two rounds, along with one of the aforementioned young guns?
Marksbury: Well said, all. Augusta is like the British Open in that aging stars often find a way to contend. Bernhard Langer, Fred Couples, and even “older” PGA Tour players players like Matt Kuchar are comfortable there and it shows. Adding Phil and Tiger to the mix of all the favorites makes my head want to explode (in a good way). I think the Masters hype is going to be crazier than ever this year. And I’m ready!
Ritter: I don’t know if it’ll be three years, five years or three weeks. Actually, I think it’ll be much more than three weeks. But there are a lot of great players on a collision course for Augusta and beyond, and Tiger and Phil have added more juice to the Tour than it’s had in several years.
Wood: I know this is a place for predictions, but I just want to watch it all play out. More than anything, I want all these great young guns to feel what happens to the temperature in the room when Tiger is in the hunt on Sunday. Not to prove anything, but for them — it’s just one of the coolest experiences they will ever have, win or lose.
5. While Tiger stole the show at the Valspar, the other two biggest names of the tournament went home early. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth both missed the cut. McIlroy is back in action this week at Bay Hill, as is Tiger. Which of those two will have the better finish?
Bamberger: Does past performance predict future results? I didn’t think so. Rory.
Dethier: Still waiting for Rory to kick things into gear this season. In contrast to all those good storylines we were just discussing, “BREAKING: Rory is back!” just hasn’t happened yet, despite my most hopeful predictions. I’ll take Tiger.
Sens: The past is not necessarily prologue. But given his showing this week, and the fact that he’s won eight times at Bay Hill, Tiger gets my nod.
Marksbury: If he can keep even a small smidgen of this week’s momentum going, it’s Tiger all the way.
Wood: Well, I think Tiger wins this week, so it would have to be Tiger.
Ritter: Rory played well in Europe late last fall, and then he got to the U.S. this year and just lost the plot. I’d like to see him have a good week and head to Augusta with a little mojo, but I’d still take Tiger over him this week.
6. The Masters concludes four Sundays from today. Give us your early picks for a winner and dark horse.
Dethier: Winner: T. Woods. Dark horse: Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
Bamberger: Winner: Rory. Dark horse: Langer.
Sens: Winner: Rose. Dark horse: Kuchar.
Marksbury: Winner: Tiger. Dark horse: Bryson DeChambeau.
Wood: Winner: Kuchar. Dark horse: Koocher.
Ritter: Rose wins. Does Fleetwood count as a dark horse? If not, Westwood if he gets in.