Tiger Woods at the Masters, that old familiar feeling
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There was comfort in being back for the injured five-time champion, even if he’s still in pain
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
AUGUSTA, Ga. – You can see it in the way he gingerly reads putts, marks his ball, reaches for the odd leaf in his line. Tiger Woods is not the same. He’s 46, his right leg is full of metal rods and pins, and his next fierce uppercut could be his last.
And yet here he is again, finding comfort in the familiar, making his first official PGA TOUR start in 508 days after his fifth back surgery in late 2020 and a single-vehicle accident that nearly cost him his right leg in early 2021. Woods shot an opening 71 in swirling winds at the 86th Masters Tournament on a rain-soaked Augusta National.
He’s under par. He’s in his element. He’s right in this thing.
“I know where to hit it to a lot of these pins,” Woods said, “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.”
Was he in pain?
“I am as sore as I expected to feel,” he said.
Translation: He trained for four rounds of this, not one.
Woods’ only competitive start over the last year and a half, at the parent-child PNC Championship in December, uses a scramble format, and he took a cart. The whole experience was so far from what he’s doing now, he said it doesn’t even count. He is 973rd in the Official World Golf Ranking. What he’s doing here, just four off Sungjae Im’s lead and not far behind two of the hottest players in the game – Cameron Smith (68) and Scottie Scheffler (69) – defies logic.
And yet it’s Woods. That’s what he does. While he held steady, Paul Casey withdrew with a bad back. Louis Oosthuizen, who played with Woods, winced as he shot a 4-over-par 76. Players in their 20s shot in the 80s.
Woods, 46, doesn’t walk like he used to, but the thick crowds willed him up the steep hills.
“I know one thing about him, he's definitely not missed any days of trying to recover and get the most out of whatever he has now,” said Stewart Cink (76). “The fact that he's out here walking around this golf course is really remarkable.”
“I mean, are we really that surprised?” said Zach Johnson (74). “… He loves challenges.”
Rory McIlroy said he no longer allows himself to be shocked by Woods. Max Homa said he wasn’t surprised but amazed, a quintessentially Woodsian question of semantics. Cink admitted he was “astonished” but quickly added, “It's just – if there was one person, I guess, I've ever known that I would say could do it, it would be Tiger Woods, and he's doing it.”
Woods lost his opening tee shot right but saved par, took what the course gave him, and was careful to avoid the big mistakes that so often doom the chances of others. He looked out of sorts at times – a flubbed pitch and rifled chip that led to a bogey at the eighth hole; a one-handed follow-through with the driver on 14, leading to another bogey – but that was to be expected.
“Lack of concentration on the first one,” Woods said of his first mistake at the par-5 eighth. “Second one, lack of commitment. Then a blocked putt, so three bad shots in a row.”
Despite the lack of competitive reps, such lapses were rare.
With just 27 putts, and birdies at the sixth, 13th and 16th holes, Woods looked a lot like the guy who was wearing the green jacket as recently as 2019 – his most recent (and 15th) major victory but not his most recent win. He captured the rain-delayed ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP amidst the deliriously happy fans in Japan later that year.
Good question; with Woods, it’s easy to lose track. When he won the 2018 TOUR Championship, it was his first win in over five years, his 80th on the PGA TOUR. Now he has 82, tied with the late Sam Snead for the most ever.
How many might Woods wind up with? It looked like a valid question again Thursday. Although he missed another drive into the left trees on 18, casual water led to an advantageous drop, and he scrambled for a closing par.
All of it came after a terrible warm-up session before the round.
“I hit it awful,” Woods said, adding that he fell back on something his late father, Earl, said: Don’t read too much into it; just go play. “That's exactly what I did,” Woods said. “I went and played.”
“Lots of ice baths,” he said. “Just basically freezing myself to death. That's just part of the deal.”
The unglamorous part. Woods would spend the rest of Thursday finding ways to reduce swelling so that he can later work on mobility and explosiveness heading into his 1:41 p.m. tee time Friday. He’ll go through the same routine Friday and, presumably, Saturday and Sunday, too. There are certainly no pictures of this on the scorecard.
“I've got to figure out a way to do it,” Woods said. “My team's been incredible at getting me into this position so that I can compete. I'll take it from there. I know how to play.”
Yes, he does. And he’s proving it one shot at a time, one step at a time, in ways both familiar and new.
Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and golf.com joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.