April 07, 2022

Tiger Woods’ Heart And Mind Win Out In Gritty Return

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Had it been the 18th tee of Pebble Beach instead of Augusta National, the violent snipe-hook Tiger Woods hit would’ve dove into the Pacific. At Bethpage Black it would’ve careened into a vortex of bunkers. At Pinehurst, Woods might still be in the trees on a quixotic search for a punch-out window.

At Augusta, however? Just a minor setback en route to a crafty par. In some respects, Augusta is the worst place possible to return from a long layoff. Eh, maybe it’s just one respect: the hills. It’s a brutal walk. But for a man fighting the rust of a 17-month competitive layoff, who’s still struggling to push off his Inspector Gadget right leg, who’s dealing with a gnarly FORELEFT off the tee, it’s ideal.

Woods’ one-under 71 on Thursday was hardly Ben Hogan stuff; he hit it terribly on the range and not much better on the course. He found just nine greens in regulation and hit that left ball with driver four times. But loose shots are forgiven at Augusta, so long as you’re precise in the right moments and blessed with perhaps the greatest set of hands to ever hold a golf club. Take 18—Woods’ drive kicked down off a tree and came to rest in standing water. A free drop, a long iron and a cut-spin lob wedge left 10 feet for a most improbable under-par round. He poured it in the center and trusted that surgically rebuilt leg to hold his weight as he picked his ball out of the hole.

He couldn’t suppress a smile as he walked off the 18th green through a tunnel of patrons for the first time since that Sunday in 2019. (Remember: there were no fans here in 2020, and Woods watched the 2021 Masters in a hospital bed.) After Rob McNamara successfully navigated the madness to reunite with the boss man, Woods bear-hugged him: “How bout that, Robby?!”

Woods said in his pre-tournament press conference that he believed he could win the tournament. On Thursday, he acknowledged that simply playing counts as a victory.

“If you would have seen how my leg looked to where it’s at now, the pictures—some of the guys know. They’ve seen the pictures, and they’ve come over to the house and they’ve seen it,” he said. “To see where I’ve been, to get from there to here, it was no easy task.”

And to shoot one under par, which had him just three back when he signed his card on a wet and windy Thursday?

“To finish in the red today after as long a layoff as I’ve had and not being in competitive golf—I don’t really consider a scramble in the PNC, it is competitive, but it’s not like this—this is totally different.

“But to play this golf course and to do what I did today, to make—to hit the shots in the right spots—I know where to hit it to a lot of these pins, and I miss in the correct spots and give myself good angles. I did that all day, and I was able to make a few putts and end up in the red like I am now.”

Translation: I would be more than three back if we were playing in Palm Springs. Augusta asks the most specific questions of any venue on tour. You know this; it’s why the old guys can hang with the youngin’s. And it’s why Woods wasn’t too concerned with a sloppy warmup.

“I went back to what my dad always said. Did you accomplish your task in the warm up? It’s a warm up. Did you warm up? Yes, I did. Now go play. That’s exactly what I did, I went and played,” he said.

He played golf, not golf swing. That’s what gets it done at Augusta. It’s the antithesis of driving-range golf. The only flat lies come on tee-boxes. The humps and bumps can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It is a canvas for artistry. It laughs at your launch monitor numbers.

How else do you explain Woods, in his first round back, beating Justin Thomas, whom Data Golf pegs as the best golfer on Earth, by five shots? Would Tiger be within striking distance of the lead had he played in a Korn Ferry Tour event today?

Before we hand Woods a sixth green jacket, however, we must acknowledge what he has known all along. Tiger’s’ movement actually improved throughout the round Thursday—adrenaline, baby—but his ankle will swell and his leg will ache, and it won’t get easier as the week wears on.

“I’m going to be sore, yes,” he acknowledged. “That’s just the way it is. But the training cycles that we’ve had to make sure that I have the stamina to keep going—and this is only one round. We’ve got three more to go. There’s a long way to go and a lot of shots to be played….as I said with all the hard work, my leg, it’s going to be difficult for the rest of my life. That’s just the way it is, but I’m able to do it.

“That’s something I’m very lucky to have this opportunity to be able to play, and not only that, to play in the Masters and to have this type of reception.”

Woods could well shoot himself out of the tournament on Friday. His back—remember his back?—could lock up in cool temperatures on Saturday morning. He could run out of gas on Sunday. But for five hours on a sunny afternoon in Georgia, an imperfect golfer with an imperfect body took advantage of a perfect marriage: Tiger Woods and Augusta National.