I'll get to all of that in this edition of the Weekly 18, but Tigermania is running wild once again, as Tiger Woods did just enough to keep us intrigued and excited about what the future holds.
The W18 begins with what we learned about Tiger, what we didn't learn and what we still don't know.
1. First things first: It doesn't take an expert to understand that the most important part about Woods' successful return to a full-field event is what it portends for the future. His performance at Torrey Pines wasn't about this week itself. It's like golf is planning a party and just set the date and sent out the invitations. There will be plenty of hot takes in the wake of his first full-field tournament in a year, but it's impossible to argue that a healthy, motivated Tiger isn't good for the game. I've been crowing about this for a while now: If he's capable of contending for tournaments again (and upon first glimpse, that answer is fairly obvious) and so many of the game's terrific young players continue playing the way they have, golf could be hurtling toward a cross-generational golden age. I'm sure contrarians can find a problem with this, but it seems like the best of both worlds.
2. Here's another one that's tough to argue against: With his T-23 result, Woods defied expectations this week. I predicted in last week's W18 that he'd finish T-14, but that hardly means I "expected" it. Even the most rabid Tiger fans should understand this was an unmitigated victory for a player who hadn't made a cut in 888 days and has only one other tourney with four rounds of par-or-better in the past five years. This should be classified as somewhere between one giant leap and baby steps, but it certainly puts him on the right path for a long journey.
3. Now we can get to the debate -- or at least one of 'em. Whenever there's discourse as to whether Woods is "back," I remember asking him what he considered "back" during one of his previous comebacks a few years ago. Tiger just sort of smiled and shrugged, as if to say he'd rather just play and let everyone else argue about it. The truth is, there's no correct answer because it's all in the interpretation. I certainly don't have an answer, either, but I do think he dropped a clue this week toward moving in that direction. Before the opening round, Tiger stopped short of his usual pre-tournament statement: "I'm here to win." Which was perfectly sensible, considering his layoff. By Sunday afternoon, when interviewed on the broadcast, he was already in old Tiger mode: "I really wanted to shoot something around 65. I thought that might be a playoff number." I'm not saying that means he's "back." Just that his comments from Wednesday to Sunday suggest a change in mindset.
4. Oh, and that quote? Tiger said it nearly three hours before the final group finished. As it turns out, 65 would have gotten him into the playoff. His prediction game is in midseason form.
5. The biggest question with Woods' game moving forward is, without a doubt, the driver. He found just 17 fairways this week -- three fewer than he'd hit during any other 72-hole PGA Tour event in his career. On a 1-10 scale of worry, though, I'd rate this about a 3.2. It would be a lot more troubling if he couldn't dial in his distance control (which was decent but not great) or started yipping chips again (which he didn't). Here's assuming that over the next few weeks, Woods will tinker with both his swing off the tee and the driver itself, finding a more comfortable combination that limits those errors.
6. We learned plenty about Tiger this week. Here's what we didn't learn: We don't know whether he's "ready" to win again; we have no idea if he'll bring his A-game to the majors; we have only vague clues about his impending schedule; and we're not even sure if his surgically repaired back can withstand an entire season of practicing and playing. All of those will be answered in due time. Point is, anyone ready to make huge proclamations about his impending results is just guessing.
7. Here's something we did learn: Despite having no wins in five years and no majors in a decade, Woods is still golf's greatest needle-mover and its most relevant asset. Love him or love to hate him, fans flock to the gallery ropes and TV screens when he's in competition. They used to do that to see the game's most dominant force in his prime. Now they do it because he's the great unknown -- and we'll never know when or if he's ready to again unlock some of that magic.
8. Woods was standing over a 9-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole Sunday, when just as he began his putting stroke, a fan yelled, "Get in the hole!" Why? Well, for the same reason anyone ever yells anything -- to be heard. I did a deep dive into the psyches of these "fans" a few years ago, interviewing nearly two dozen people who had screamed inane things at professional golfers during tournaments. I found out a few things, none of which should come as a surprise. First, they're almost exclusively men ages 18 to 30. Second, they were nearly unanimous in having a little liquid courage. Third, they yelled after texting friends watching on TV at home to listen for their voice. You probably could have guessed all of that. What you might not realize -- and what the guy who screamed at Tiger is only starting to grasp -- is that most of them regretted causing a scene and said they wouldn't do it again.
9. Last thing on Tiger: I absolutely loved this quote from him after a third-round 70 during which he hit the ball all over the place and saved himself with a brilliant short-game performance. "The only thing I had was my short game and my heart," he said afterward, "and that got me through it today."
10. Three years ago, Day opened with a disappointing 1-over 73 at Torrey, then went on to win the golf tournament. Must be a smart strategy. This week, he again opened with a 73 and again won in a playoff. It's the first victory for Day in 20 months, as he's dealt with some personal situations that presumably affected his on-course performance. He should be commended for hanging in during an extra long Sunday afternoon, then bouncing back Monday morning in the continuation of a playoff with Alex Noren, stiffing a third-shot wedge on the sixth hole to all but clinch the title.
11. Feel-good story of the week (non-Tiger division) goes to Ryan Palmer. Three years ago, I sat with him days after his father had died in a car accident, and he explained why he needed to keep playing for has dad. Last year, his wife, Jennifer, underwent treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. As a result, he made only 20 starts and entered this season needing to keep his PGA Tour playing privileges in his first six events. Things are looking up. Jennifer is healthy, and he needed only two of those six starts to keep his card. Palmer was eliminated on the first playoff hole Sunday, but the smile on his face afterward told the story of a guy who can still be happy without getting the win.
12. I get it. The tournament was on the line for J.B. Holmes as he stood over his second shot on the final hole, and the wind was gusting, and he was trying to make a decision. Quite simply, though, the decision took way too long. It took Holmes more than four minutes to hit his layup, which is egregious on a Thursday morning but downright detrimental to the game on a Sunday afternoon in the final group, when it shines a spotlight on just how plodding professional golf can be in its biggest moments.
13. The worst part? Holmes essentially iced one of his playing partners. After waiting and watching, Noren finally stood over his ball, swung and flew the green. That's not fair.
14. All of that said, I'm not an advocate of shot clocks or more fervently enforced slow-play penalties, especially during the final holes of a tournament. For a game infused with purity, it just feels too artificial. Think about it: Your favorite player is tied for the lead on the final hole. He stands over his ball. A big wind gust comes through. He steps away. Then, suddenly, a horn sounds, noting that he took too long, will be penalized and has lost the tournament. Sounds brutal, right? Besides, if you're going to police the last few groups on Sunday, you've got to police all of them for all four rounds. There needs to be a more organic cure for slow play than some of the ideas that are out there.
15. Haotong Li is a stud. The 22-year-old didn't just stiff-arm McIlroy down the stretch on Sunday in Dubai, but he also moved into the world's top 50 and earned his second European Tour title. He's also really fun to watch. Li plays with some fire and passion, which could translate into his becoming a global star once his game reaches full potential. If this week was any indication, he might not be too far off.
16. Of course, McIlroy owns more than a few stud qualities himself. For those scoring at home, he's now returned from that 3½-month layoff to finish third and second in his first two starts. You can almost see him building more confidence each round. If he continues at this pace, those thirds and seconds soon will translate into wins.
17. Imagine this: You're a young person, tops in the world in your field and ready to start a job that could soon prove to be extremely lucrative -- except then you're offered an amazing-yet-unpaid opportunity that's too good to turn down. OK, so maybe it's not a perfect analogy to other situations, but this was the one facing Joaquin Niemann before he won this week's Latin America Amateur Championship. With it, of course, comes an exemption into this year's Masters, and so the 19-year-old No. 1-ranked amateur from Chile will delay turning pro for three more months, until he gains that invaluable experience at the year's first major.
18. Nothing against Phoenix, nothing against Pebble -- two really fun weeks coming up on the PGA Tour. But it's going to be lit, as the kids say, at Riviera in a few weeks. Defending champion Dustin Johnson is in the field, as are McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. Oh, and that other guy. The tournament host. Some dude named Tiger.