AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s as if there are two different tournaments playing out for Tiger Woods: the one in which he could ridiculously contend for a sixth Masters championship and the one in which just walking the course might be worthy of a jacket ceremony of its own. The first version Woods has played before, and at 46, he’s here for it again, with the requisite juices flowing.
The second version is unprecedented, and Thursday afternoon, as he walked up the 18th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club with a hitch in his step, darned if it wasn’t more riveting. He has won 15 major championships and has long defined success in singular fashion: Either he hoists a trophy or he doesn’t. For a day, maybe for a week, that has shifted. When Woods was asked whether there was victory merely in doing what he did Thursday — shooting a steady, 1-under par 71 on a rebuilt right leg that now houses enough hardware to fill an aisle at Home Depot — his answer was swift: “Yes.”
“If you would have seen how my leg looked to where it’s at now,” Woods said. “The pictures, some of the guys know. They’ve seen the pictures, and they’ve come over the house. To see where I’ve been. To get from there to here,” and he chuckled, “was no easy task.”
Only Woods knows how his right leg felt after his round. Only Woods can imagine what it might feel like after three more loops around this undulating layout, where every stance seems to demand that one hip be cocked above the other. Only Woods knows the work that went into getting his body in the shape he needs to have it to compete here.
“People have no idea how hard it’s been,” he said.
So let’s not sell this short: In competing for the first time in 17 months — since the pandemic-delayed Masters of 2020 — what he did Thursday was astonishing. Put it this way: Justin Thomas is a former world No. 1 in perfect health at age 28. He shot a 76. Jordan Spieth has won a Masters and finished in the top three four other times and is also a spry 28. He shot a 74. Jon Rahm was the betting favorite, a U.S. Open champion with the expectation of contending here at 27. He, too, shot a 74.
Woods had the car crash and the recovery and the layoff — and for a day, he beat them all.
“When you haven’t played any competition for a long time, you have a tendency to not be as sharp and sharp mentally,” said none other than Jack Nicklaus. And then the only man who has won more majors than Woods caught himself and considered the subject about which he was talking.
“I guess I never would ever fault Tiger for his mental acumen,” Nicklaus said, “because I think Tiger, mentally, is fantastic.”
Which describes the Masters when he’s a factor: fantastic. There are no limits to what can be cheered when it comes to Woods at Augusta. There’s the normal stuff, as when he stuck his tee shot at the par-3 sixth to two feet. When he made the ensuing putt for a birdie, fists shot into the air as if someone had made a half-court buzzer-beater.
“The place was electric,” he said.
He didn’t even have to be in view for that to be the case. The massive hand-operated leader boards here reserve a small space in the corner to display the standing of the players approaching the green on a given hole. As Woods prepared to hit his second shot at the par-5 eighth — blind, from way down the hill, where the gallery couldn’t see him — the board swung around, turning “DeChambeau” and “Smith” into “Niemann” on top of “Oosthuizen” on top of “Woods.”
Next to Woods’s name: a red 1, indicating 1 under par. That’s all that was needed for a wave of applause to ripple through the grandstand, mixed in with a few outbursts of “Tiger!” He hadn’t even emerged. He delivered chills anyway.
But he also delivered the golf. He used his mind to recover from near-jail situations at the seventh and the 18th — pars from the pinestraw that combined creativity with calculus. Even with the layoff, he can think his way around here.
The question, then, was physical. Take the par-4 14th, where Woods’s tee shot sailed left of a large pine tree. The ensuing approach shot appeared treacherous. Given the state of his leg, could he commit to pulling it off?
“I was going to pull it off,” Woods said, smiling. “Yeah, I had a gap. I had a window. I was going to hit it.”
There was that edge to that answer, the edge that provided the reason to show up here. Think I can’t? Yes, I can. He lashed at that ball in the pine needles. It ended up at the back of the green.
So what we know is that, in these parallel tournaments — the one in which showing up is a victory and the one in which victory is determined by score — Woods is contending in both. Given that, it’s worth going back to his Masters titles for context. His five first-round scores those years: 70, 70, 70, 74 and 70. His deficits, in shots: three, five, three, seven and four. His position: fourth, 15th, seventh, 33rd and 11th.
So a 71, trailing by four shots, tied for 10th? Doesn’t sound too bad.
Afterward, Woods emerged from the clubhouse to address a gaggle of reporters. To do so, he had to climb up on a box that elevated him above the throng. He stepped deliberately with his left leg first, putting no weight on his right, before saying, below his breath, “You here to hear me sing?”
The way the throngs reacted to him Thursday, had he warbled even a single off-key note, he would have been roundly cheered. The Masters will be determined over the ensuing three days. Tiger Woods’s body may — or may not — allow him to contend. There’s victory, though, in that it’s even a possibility.