What’s ahead for Tiger Woods?

Tiger Woods hasn’t played a round of competitive professional golf since withdrawing from the Masters on a cold, rainy April morning. He’s played four rounds of a major only once since 2020. He’ll be 48 years old before the end of the year. Surgeons have conducted more procedures on him alone than you’ll see in 10 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” You know this. You know his best days are well behind him.

And then you see something like this …

… and you start to think, what if…?

Woods returns to golf this week at the Hero World Challenge, a 20-man no-cut Bahamas getaway that’s as low-key as a PGA Tour-sanctioned event gets. The course at Albany Golf Club is virtually flat, an easy stroll for Woods’ many-times-repaired back, knees and ankles. The vibe is chill, the galleries are minuscule. In short, it’s the perfect place for Woods to make a low-stress return to the game. Two weeks from now, he’ll tee it up with son Charlie at the PNC Championship, a two-day parent-child event that’s about as strenuous as a backyard barbecue.

What happens then? What can we expect to see out of Woods after his two-event dress rehearsal? Will Woods win his 83rd tournament and break the tie with Sam Snead atop the PGA Tour all-time wins list? Will he rally the United States to a dramatic, definitive Ryder Cup victory at Bethpage? Will he sweep the majors this year, at last pulling ahead of Jack Nicklaus?

In order: unlikely but possible, not as a player, and definitely not. Appreciating Woods’ smooth swing is one thing, expecting him to go toe-to-toe with Jon Rahm or Rory McIlroy or Brooks Koepka — all very much in their primes — is quite another. After getting his ankle fused earlier this year, even Woods himself doesn’t even know what he’s got left to give on the course.

“I’ve played a lot of holes, but I haven’t … used a pencil and scorecard,” Woods said earlier this week. “Now you put a pencil to paper and it really counts, it’s a little bit different story. So I’m very curious about that.”

Tiger Woods returns to the course this week. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Tiger Woods returns to the course this week. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Woods later indicated that the best-case scenario would be playing roughly one tournament a month, starting with the Genesis Invitational in February. That would lead to a schedule of the Players in March, the Masters in April, the PGA Championship in May, the U.S. Open in June, the Open Championship in July, and — perhaps — the FedEx Cup playoffs in August, with the Arnold Palmer Invitational (March) and the Memorial (June) also possibilities. That’s a light schedule for a healthy player, but — perhaps — an ambitious one for Woods.

The place where Woods will have a measurable and significant impact won’t be visible to galleries — at least, not immediately. Woods, like most of the rest of the golf world, was caught by surprise when the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund struck their stunning agreement in June … and Woods is not someone who likes to be caught by surprise.

“It happened so quickly without any of our involvement,” Woods said of the agreement. “No one knew. That can’t happen again.”

Woods is serving as one of the de facto leaders of the players who opted to remain on the PGA Tour rather than jump to the breakaway LIV Golf tour. Given that the Tour and LIV’s financial backer are now negotiating an agreement to reshape golf, Woods has the task of representing the interests of those players on the Tour’s policy board, and also carries the burden of upholding the Tour’s 50-plus-year history at a time when money appears to have the upper hand over legacy.

“I made an impact on the PGA Tour for a number of years hitting a golf ball,” Woods said. “I can have, I think, a lasting impact by … being on the board and being a part of the future of the PGA Tour.”

On a broader scale, though, you’ll see Woods’ influence as he walks alongside Justin Thomas, Will Zalatoris, Max Homa and other younger players. Woods recognizes that he’s part of the long chain of champions — a significant part, yes, but a part all the same — and he says he’s looking to share some of his knowledge to keep the game strong.

“When you come out (on Tour) in your 20s, you’re young and you’re impressionable and you ask questions,” he said. “Then as you get older you have your little run and towards the end you want to pass on all that knowledge to others. That’s how the game of golf has grown. That’s what we have all learned from.”

The next era of Tiger Woods — 3.0, 4.0 or 5.0, depending on how you measure these things — begins this week in the Bahamas. When and where it ends is anyone’s guess.

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