Tiger Woods is back in action this week in what will (likely) be his final start before next month's Masters.
Yes, in speaking with reporters Tuesday, Woods opened the door to potentially adding an unexpected start at the Houston Open in two weeks. But that tournament will be played the week before the Masters on a course he's never before seen, and Woods historically prefers to hone his practice and prep away from competition before driving down Magnolia Lane.
He'll be the defending champ at Augusta National in three weeks, and he's also defending a title this week at the relocated Zozo Championship. Woods won the inaugural affair last year in Japan, tying Sam Snead's all-time PGA Tour wins record at the process, and he'll look to break that record this week on a course he knows quite well. With the COVID-19 pandemic curbing international travel, the tournament has shifted to Sherwood Country Club in Southern California - the longtime host of Woods' Hero World Challenge and a place where he won that event five times in the early 2000s.
So what should we expect from Woods in what will likely serve as his only competitive reps between a missed cut at the U.S. Open and his much-anticipated return to Augusta? He told reporters that his game is "definitely better" than what he showed at Winged Foot, where he was largely listless and never factored. But while he remains optimistic about a return to form, the recent trends are working against him: he hasn't finished better than T-37 in any of his five starts since the Tour returned from break in June, and he hasn't cracked the top 10 since a T-9 finish at the Farmers Insurance Open in January (which concluded the same day Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash and now feels like it happened in another decade). During that time, he has slipped from sixth to 28th in the world rankings.
Oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook are taking a cautious approach to pricing Woods this week, siding more with the lack of recent form than any potential course affinity that could blossom in his return to Sherwood. He's listed at +3000 to win the tournament, behind 11 players in the star-studded field and on equal footing with young guns Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, among others.
Here's a breakdown of Woods' odds based on finishing position, keeping in mind that this week's event boasts a limited (78-player) field and no 36-hole cut:
First-round leader: +3300
Top American: +1800
Top-5 finish: +625
Top-10 finish: +300
Top-20 finish: +130
Top-30 finish: -143
Top-40 finish: -334
Oddsmakers have also put Woods on relatively equal footing with a pair of American stars who he captained last year at the Presidents Cup. Woods (-114) and Tony Finau (-114) have the exact same odds in their 72-hole, head-to-head matchup, as Finau makes his first start since receiving a positive COVID-19 diagnosis earlier this month. Meanwhile Woods (-112) is a slight underdog against Patrick Cantlay (-118), who went to nearby UCLA and nearly won two weeks ago in Las Vegas.
Woods will play the first two rounds alongside a pair of fellow California products with strong recent results, Xander Schauffele and Matthew Wolff. Schauffele was a runner-up last week at Shadow Creek, while Wolff lost in a playoff at TPC Summerlin the week prior. It's again a situation where Woods is listed as an underdog (+222) for his opening-round three-ball matchup, just behind Wolff (+207) and with Schauffele (+118) a clear favorite.
Looking ahead to next month, Woods is holding steady at +2000 to win back-to-back Masters titles for the second time in his career. But if he's going to make a serious run at a 16th major title at a Masters unlike any other, he'll likely need to lay the groundwork this week while flashing some form on a course he knows well. Competitive appearances outside the majors are becoming increasingly rare for a man who's approaching his 45th birthday, so this week's effort could go a long way toward gauging the state of his game with the year's final major, and likely his final start before late January, fast approaching.
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