April 03, 2018

Tiger Returns to Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. – After a two-year absence, Tiger Woods tees it up Thursday in the 82nd Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

It’s hard to tell who is more excited: Woods or the patrons?

Based on early indications, it’s a draw.

Since arriving on property Monday, Woods has been accorded a hero’s welcome. When he walked onto the practice range, Woods received a rousing ovation. During Tuesday’s nine-hole practice round with Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson and Thomas Pieters, patrons lined up 10-deep around the tee boxes.

“He is the needle,” Justin Thomas said of Woods.

A four-time winner at Augusta National, Woods loves the tournament and has an enviable record. In addition to four green jackets, his 20 pro starts have produced 11 top five finishes and seven top-6 finishes in his last nine appearances.

Since winning the 1997 Masters by a record-breaking 12 strokes at age 21, Woods has always attracted strong support. His heart-stopping chip-in birdie at the par-3 16th hole in 2005 will go down as one of the most memorable shots in tournament history.

But this year is different, and the patrons know it.

A year ago, Woods was preparing to undergo spinal back fusion surgery, his fourth procedure since 2014. He attended the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, but couldn’t swing a club and was in constant pain.

“My nerve was on fire and it was going down my leg,” the 42-year-old Woods said Tuesday. “It was just burning. Given how I feel now versus then, it’s night and day.”

Six months later, Woods started his comeback. Though many wrote him off, Woods has continued to progress. In early December, he returned to competition at the Hero World Challenge in Albany, Bahamas, tying for ninth. Most importantly, he was pain-free.

After participating in only one PGA Tour event in 2017, Woods has already made five starts this year and is trending up. In his last two tournaments, the Valspar Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational, he finished second and fifth, respectively, and contended on the back nine Sunday.

“It is a miracle,” said Woods. “I went from a person that had a really hard time getting up, walking around, anything, to swinging a club. You saw on the Trackman, 129 (mph). That is a miracle.”

Prior to his arrival on Monday, Woods played two practice rounds at Augusta to re-acclimate himself with the famed course. It was designed by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie and opened in 1933.

Little had changed.

“It looked beautiful,” Woods said.

On Monday, he played the front nine with 1992 champion Couples and Thomas. On Tuesday morning, Woods toured the back nine with Couples, Mickelson and Pieters.
Woods and Mickelson partnered and put on a dazzling display for the patrons. Woods eagled the par-5 13th and 15th holes, then birdied 16. Mickelson birdied 14,16 and 17.

“We got ‘shillelaghed,’ ’’ Couples said.

After hitting tee shots at 16, the foursome skipped balls across the pond to the green in unison.

“It was loud, very fun, and they hit some really good shots, wow,” said Couples.
Added Pieters, “Tiger was brilliant.”

Contrary to some opinions, Woods and the 47-year-old Mickelson are friendly. While they remain fierce competitors, they bonded at Ryder and Presidents Cups, and shared stories and laughter Tuesday. Woods marveled at a Mickelson flop shot with a 64-degree wedge.

“We’re at the tail end of our careers – we both know that,” said Woods. “We have had a great 20-year battle, and hopefully we will have a few more. But we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1. That was then, and certainly this is now.”

Mickelson wore a button-down dress shirt.

“I was giving him a little bit of grief about that,” Woods said. “The only thing he was missing was the tie.”

Couples seemed genuinely entertained. After watching Woods up close for two days, he sees no reason why he can’t make a run at his 80th PGA Tour victory and fifth green jacket at Augusta.

“I think he’ll be a factor this week,” said Couples. “I don’t know why he wouldn’t be.”

Rory McIlroy agreed.

“He’s got a great chance,” he said. “Look at how he’s played the last few weeks. He’s very comfortable around this golf course and his game is right there.”

A remarkable turnaround, given all Woods has been through. He isn’t just competing this week, he’s among the favorites.

“All of a sudden I have this pop and my body and my speed’s back and my timing,” Woods said. “I’m hitting speeds that I hit in my prime.”

Woods previous wins at Augusta came in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005. But he was quick to remind the media there is a lot of work ahead.

“So let’s just kind slow down,” he said. “I have four rounds to play and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully I end up on top.”

After contemplating life without professional golf, Woods has been given a mulligan and plans on making the most of it.

“So that part is very exciting because I know that if I can maintain this, I can play out here for a very long time and be able to have the length to get around pretty much any of the golf courses,” he said.

The last time Woods competed in a major was the 2015 PGA Championship and he missed the cut. His last appearance at Augusta in 2015, Woods tied for 17th.
Woods will play the first two rounds with Marc Leishman and Tommy Fleetwood. The trio tees off Thursday at 10:42 a.m. ET and 1:27 p.m. ET on Friday.

Each of the last two years, Woods pushed hard to play at the Masters.

“In hindsight, it was a big pipe dream,” Woods said. “My back was fried.”

This year, he’s all in.