With the four major championships and a Ryder Cup in the space of six months, 2018 promises plenty of drama in the golfing world. It is hard to pinpoint an era in which the game has found itself in such a healthy state; the sheer quality and quantity of competition is entirely unprecedented. Better still, 2018 marks the return of the two biggest names in golf following their recent injury layoffs, and with it, a couple of all-important questions need to be examined. First of all, can a reinvented Tiger Woods defy the odds and compete at the highest level once more? Secondly, can a rejuvenated Rory McIlroy reproduce his best form and bring his quest for that elusive green jacket to an end?
It has got to the point where Tiger’s name cannot even be murmured without an ensuing debate regarding his fitness, or lack thereof. A decade of setbacks ‒ a torn ACL, Achilles injuries and backs spasms to name a few ‒ has culminated in spinal fusion surgery and an unrecognisable golf swing. Any notion of a remarkable comeback appeared utterly unfathomable in May 2017 when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, admitting himself that he didn’t know whether or not he would play competitive golf again following a fourth back operation. However, having entered three tournaments since the end of January and playing consecutive weeks on the PGA Tour for the first time since 2015, golfing fans could be forgiven for a renewed sense of optimism regarding what 2018 holds in store for the face of their beloved sport.
As for Rory, his time out of the game has been much shorter, and the pressure on him to perform has shown no signs of relenting. Returning to the sport having been absent since the Dunhill Links Championship in October, his followers will certainly hope that 2018 proves more successful than the dismal 2017 season. It must be said that there were a number of discernible factors involved in this uncharacteristic showing, which saw him drop to number 11 in the world rankings. The first and primary reason behind a three-month winter break was the recurrence of troublesome rib and back injuries, which were proving detrimental to his performances. 2017 also saw him split with long-term caddy JP Fitzgerald, the man who had carried his bag for all four of his major championship victories. With the addition of a wedding and an enforced change of club manufacturer, it is clear that a combination of on and off-course issues played a large role in the Northern Irishman’s first winless season since 2008.
Nonetheless, the golfing world now seems to be looking forward rather than backwards. Both have seemed comfortable on the course in recent weeks, albeit with varying degrees of success. Tiger’s first outing this year at the Farmers Insurance Open ended with a very respectable top-25 finish against a strong field, only to miss the cut at the Genesis Open a couple of weeks later. Most promising, though, was his most recent performance in Florida’s Honda Classic, played at the challenging PGA National course. Half way through his final round, Woods sat three shots adrift of the leader, only to succumb to the perilous “Bear Trap” stretch of holes. Most evident since his long-awaited return has been success with the putter: he still seems vulnerable off the tee, but his short game certainly looks in fine order. Finishing in 12th place at a tournament where only eleven players finished under-par is bound to provide a much-needed confidence boost so early in the season. Whilst he is yet to officially commit to the tournament, we can next expect to see Woods in action at the Arnold Palmer Invitational on 12 March.
Whilst Tiger’s most recent performance in Florida sent shivers down supporters’ spines, McIlroy’s performance at the same tournament certainly did not. A nine-over-par finish left him languishing in 59th place following a performance which could be described as erratic at best. As always with Rory, birdies were plentiful, but costly errors at crucial moments led to 21 dropped shots throughout the course of his four rounds. This is not to take away from his tied-third place and second place finish at the Abu Dhabi Championship and Dubai Desert Classic respectively, but his consistency is certainly a concern, no matter how early in the season. The common consensus is that on his day, McIlroy is second to none, and in committing to a busy schedule, he will hope that his best form is only around the corner.
This brings their prospects in the upcoming majors into question, with the Masters at Augusta only a few weeks away. Woods can boast some quite remarkable success at the venue ‒ with four green jackets to his name ‒ the first of which came as a fresh- faced 21-year-old. This being said, he has not competed there since 2015, let alone contended. Lacking a PGA Tour victory since 2013, and without a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, it would be one of the greatest success stories in sporting history were he to collect a fifth green jacket this year. For that matter, the odds of him adding to his major tally at all do not seem in his favour; despite what you may read, golf is becoming an increasingly young man’s game, with more than three quarters of major winners since 1960 aged 35 or younger. Legends of the game, such as Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, have all tried and failed to add to their major tallies after this age. As such, we should manage our expectations accordingly with Tiger, even though someone with such raw ability has never graced this Earth. The fact that he is swinging a club at 120 mph again is in itself quite remarkable, so we should err on the side of caution for the time being. Frankly, Tiger winning a PGA Tour event this season would be considered an extraordinary achievement.
Fans should also combine optimism with caution when it comes to McIlroy. Much has been made of his ongoing pursuit of the career grand slam at Augusta, with victories in the other three majors already to his name. As we are painfully aware, he came agonisingly close in 2011, having led by four shots going into the final round, only to implode and open the door for South African Charl Schwartzel. Standing in his way this year is an apparently endless list of young Americans: the likes of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler are deservedly ahead of McIlroy in the golfing pecking order at the moment, as are European counterparts Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood. Combine this with the fact that he hasn’t won a tournament since September 2016, or a major since 2014, and it is hard to construct a compelling argument for him winning the first major of the year come April. In many ways, one can draw parallels between McIlroy’s search for a green jacket with Andy Murray’s long wait for a Wimbledon title, with the expectation of a nation of his shoulders. One thing is for sure though: McIlroy adding to his current major tally, and winning at Augusta for that matter, is surely a case of “when” and not “if”. His aggressive and long-hitting style of play is tailor-made for Augusta, and it is surely only a matter of time before he navigates Amen Corner as a Masters champion. It may not happen this year, but it will happen eventually.
Last but not least is the upcoming Ryder Cup, which will be played at Le Golf National, France, from 28-30 September. The USA team has not won on European soil since 1993, but the plethora of talent in their ranks is likely to cause great concern for the Europeans. McIlroy’s role in the tournament, fitness-dependant, is an undoubted one: Thomas Bjorn will hope that McIlroy’s return to form comes sooner rather than later in order to avenge the defeat at Hazeltine in 2016. Woods’ role is less clear cut, however. Jim Furyk has already named him as one of his Vice-Captains in France, but Woods insists that he wants to represent his country in a playing capacity too. Furyk has said that “If he could be valuable as a player, I’m sure we would want him playing on this team, but I’m anxious to see how he plays this year.” Should he play in Versailles, it would be his first time as part of the USA team since the Europeans pulled off the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012. If his remarkable comeback continues, though, he could qualify for selection automatically and take the decision out of his captain’s hands.