Last weekend’s exhilaration watching Tiger Woods race ahead of schedule in his return to the game comes with a bit of a hangover this morning.
Last weekend’s fun comes with a headache yet to conquer.
There is still so much work left for Woods to catch up to the legion of young stars taking control of the game.
He couldn’t catch Justin Thomas Sunday at the Honda Classic, with Thomas winning his eighth PGA Tour title at 24, which sets Thomas up for a run at back-to-back Player of the Year awards.
As good as Woods looked at PGA National, as much promise as he showed in just his third PGA Tour start after yet another back surgery, he finished eight shots behind Thomas.
Yes, that’s not the number that mattered in any reasonable measurement of where Woods is in his comeback, but he flipped a switch in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
The tempered expectations aren’t so tempered anymore.
“My expectations have gone up,” Woods said.
How the 42-year-old fares against Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and the other 20something stars will be the gauge going forward.
Yes, and Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, too. They may be in their 30s now, but they are in their primes.
As Woods stepped to the first tee Sunday to try to make a run at the leaders, the challenge beyond the week looked him square in the eye and smiled.
His fellow competitor, Sam Burns, a 21-year-old playing on a sponsor exemption, reminded Woods that formidable new waves of youth are going to pour in behind Spieth, McIlroy and Thomas.
Woods saw in Burns how these young guys have the ultimate respect for him, but no fear of him.
Burns acknowledged being extremely nervous meeting Woods for the first time at the first tee, but then he striped his tee shot down the middle. And then he nestled up alongside Woods walking down the first fairway, to crack an ice-breaking joke.
“Man, it’s crazy all these people came out to watch me today, isn’t it?” Burns said.
Burns was good naturedly bantering, enjoying his chance to play against Woods for the first time outside a video game.
Leaving Honda, Woods was asked if he was beginning to feel like the “old Tiger” again.
“I feel like an older guy,” Woods cracked. “Sam is half my age. That’s a little different.”
Burns beat Woods Sunday, putting up a 68 with Woods shooting 70.
Yes, that score didn’t really matter in the lens we were using to evaluate where Woods is at in his comeback, but it matters going forward.
It always mattered in the past to Woods, too.
He was all about beating everybody.
There was territory to be staked, messages to be delivered and advantages to be built in every pairing.
Woods won’t be getting any younger, so Father Time will keep stealing advantages he once built. But there’s one special place where Woods may yet have immunity to that.
If his game keeps coming together this quickly, there’s one place he still holds the advantage on these young guys.
You know where this going, to Augusta National, and the Masters.
With his swing speed remarkably reinvigorated, with his iron play coming back, with his short game restored, all he needs is for his putter to return to full blossom with all those dogwoods and azaleas.
Augusta National is the one place where Woods can most emphatically turn the tables on all these young stars, even Spieth, who has a victory and two second-place finishes in the last four years.
“I’m just building toward April,” Woods said. “I’m trying to get myself ready for that, and I feel like I’m right on track for that.”
The Masters is five weeks away, but if Woods keeps putting his game together, he won’t feel five weeks older. He may look 10 years younger. That’s the transformative effect Augusta National has on players who know how to unlock its secrets.
Jack Nicklaus, of course, won there at 46, but he also made that Sunday run at the leaders when he was 58.
Ben Crenshaw won there when he was 43, Gary Player when he was 42 and Sam Snead when he was almost 42.
Raymond Floyd, Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples remained competitive there into their 50s.
While Woods has work to do catching all these young stars on the game’s larger landscape, the tables could easily reverse at Augusta, where youth may very well be wasted on the young.
Woods doesn’t need all his powers back to be special there again. He knows that. He knows it’s where all these young guys may have to measure up to him again.