Tiger Woods mania already huge at Masters practice. Does it appear he can play?
Monday felt like Sunday. Tiger Woods can do that to a place.
The first day of practice rounds at the Masters typically is buzzing, but mostly with thousands of spectators — they call them patrons here — getting their first glimpse of Augusta National, walking the holes and lining up to spend hundreds and often thousands of dollars on merchandise.
But this Monday felt markedly different as Woods made his near-miraculous return to the storied tournament after a catastrophic rollover car accident in February 2021 that almost cost him his right leg, or perhaps his life.
Not so long ago, the big question was whether Woods, the winner of 15 major championships, would be able to play golf with his son again — let alone test his legs for the Masters.
A comeback unlike any other? Tiger Woods arrives at the Masters still deciding whether to play
Tiger Woods tweeted that he was headed to Augusta National on Sunday without yet deciding whether to play.
But there he was, matching strides with Justin Thomas and Fred Couples, getting ready for yet another comeback story for the ages. He walked a little more rigidly than in the past, slightly favoring his right leg, but still with more fluidity than most every other 46-year-old person on the planet.
Couples took particular note of Woods’ power off the tee.
“What impresses me the most is he was bombing it for one,” Couples said. “If you want to talk golf, he was bombing it. I know JT is not the longest hitter on the Tour, but I know he’s damn long. He was with him flushing it.
“I never speak for Tiger, so I’m not even going to get into he walked nine holes, I guess he played nine yesterday, but as a friend and the way he looked, he’s very impressive.”
Just as remarkable was what was happening outside the ropes, with patrons stacked five to six deep, from tee to green, hoping to get a peek at history.
“Just when you thought he couldn’t push the heights of Tiger Mania any higher, he comes here and turns a sleepy Monday into Woodstock,” said Damon Hack, co-host of “Golf Today” on the Golf Channel, who left his set on the first fairway to join the following.
Woods played the front nine, and when he was done in the late afternoon, thousands of patrons streamed for the exits as if Disneyland had closed for the day.
Even his fellow competitors are swept up in the overriding question of the week: Will he or won’t he play?
“It’s exciting that there’s the possibility he’s going to play this week,” said Adam Scott, who won the 2013 Masters. “I really hope he does. I think no matter what it would just be epic.”
Couples said that for months he has been communicating with Woods.
“I text him every day, tease him, he teases me,” Couples said. “I never ask him, `Did you play nine today? Are you hitting balls?’ It’s always about other stuff. And he kind of hints, `I’m feeling good. I went out and I walked.’
“He’s doing all this to play in this, which is impressive in itself, because I’m telling you, you guys walk, you follow players. It’s brutal to walk, and to go what he’s gone through too — whatever it is, 14 months ago — to be playing today? I hope everything keeps going Tuesday and Wednesday and I’m sure he’s going to tee it up Thursday.”
There’s some wistful speculation making the rounds that Woods will play in Wednesday’s par-three tournament with his 13-year-old son, Charlie, as his caddy. Then again, why work the legs any more than necessary?
Cellphones aren’t allowed at Augusta National, but cameras are permissible for the three days of practice rounds, so hundreds of people snapped shots of Woods. To memorialize the moment, fans posed for pictures with the world’s most famous golfer in the background, pointing toward him the way they might the Eiffel Tower.
It started when Woods was warming up, with hundreds of people watching him blast balls out of a practice bunker, with most of his shots winding up within a beach towel of the cup. They applauded when he stepped out of the white sand and made his way to the practice tees. It’s exceedingly rare for spectators to clap and cheer that way on the driving range.
A jovial Woods then quickly worked his way through his bag on the practice tees, from short irons to long.
“Driver’s out of the bag,” one of the professional photographers noted as Woods was wrapping up. The excited murmur was a tip to fellow media members to speed-walk over to the course — no running allowed — because Woods and an enormous throng of onlookers would be soon to follow.
The golf course was like a giant shoe box, and wherever Woods went, it was as if someone tilted that box and gave it a tap.
Less than 14 months removed from a horrific car accident, Tiger Woods seems to be contemplating a Masters comeback next week at Augusta National.
He disappeared into the clubhouse from the practice range, then reemerged on the other side to calls of “Tiger!” and “There he is!” He then spent a few minutes putting on the practice green, where three years ago he was cheered in a championship ceremony for the 2019 Masters.
For Collin Morikawa, ranked third in the world, his first Masters memory was watching Woods win the tournament for the first time in 1997. And Morikawa’s favorite such memory was watching Woods win his fifth green jacket, in 2019.
“I was in college,” said Morikawa, 25, of La Cañada Flintridge, a University of California student at the time. “We were sitting all together, we were watching it. I mean, that Sunday was booked out to do nothing other than watch TV.”
The story line Monday was markedly different, but the scene was familiar as Woods striped his drive down the middle off the first tee, then passed his first test, walking down and up the undulating fairway. He was a bit hunched as he chugged up the hill, a climb that looked to require more effort than in years past, but considering what he’s been through, it was nonetheless remarkable.
“He’s a good example of life’s not always perfect, and so it’s really exciting to see him on his highs,” said Patrick Cantlay, the former UCLA standout who is making his sixth Masters appearance.
“And so I hope that he is able to tee it up this week and play well, and obviously that’s the greatest thing for our sport. There’s definitely a different feel in tournaments that he tees it up in.”
Even on Mondays.
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