What comes next is still unclear, but Woods knows he wants to find out
The patrons formed a tunnel of pure adulation and serenaded their limping hero. Those who couldn’t elbow their way to high-five territory gathered just behind the press-only section, desperate to milk every last second of their proximity to Tiger Woods. Joe LaCava had already jetted for the car, eager to unload the precious cargo into a boot, but not before offering a “see you down the road” to some friendly media faces. Bubba Watson hovered nearby and caught the attention of Erica Herman. She peeled away from Sam and Charlie and Tida and Rob, pushed onto her tiptoes and embraced the big lefty.
“I hope you’re proud of him,” Watson said. She smiled, but she did not say anything.
No words could possibly express the mixture of gratitude and sheer amazement that pulsed throughout the acre just outside Augusta National’s clubhouse. Woods had just shot a round that, a decade earlier, would’ve prompted an existential crisis. Seventy-eight, for a second straight day. A 12-over weekend and a 47th-place finish. And yet there he was, smiling through the pain.
“To go from where I was to get to this point, I’ve had an incredible team that has helped me get to this point,” he said. “And incredible support from – as I alluded to in the press conference on Tuesday, the amount of texts and FaceTimes and calls I got from players that are close to me throughout this entire time has meant a lot.
“Then to come here on these grounds and have the patrons – I played in a COVID year, and then I didn’t play last year; ’19 was the last time for me that I experienced having the patrons like this, and it’s exciting. It’s inspiring.”
That he even considered playing in this year’s Masters speaks to the potency of an inhuman work ethic paired with modern medical technology. Woods has rods and screws and plates in his right leg, which doctors rebuilt after the weight of an SUV crushed it to pieces. He still has difficulty walking on flat ground. Trudging up and down hills requires careful consideration. His one-under 71 on the Thursday of the Masters looks increasingly preposterous, and we don’t know the half of it. The few pros that’ve wiggled their way into his famously tight circle have seen pictures of the post-accident damage. They’ve received texts from Woods at ungodly morning hours as he preps for another day of rehab. Tiger did not take a single day off after he left his in-home hospital bed 11 months ago, refusing to accept any other outcome than walking Amen Corner on the second Sunday of April.
“This tournament has meant so much to me and my family, this entire tournament,” Woods said. “It’s meant a lot to me, and there’s no other place that – well, there’s no other place, no other Major that we play in the same venue. St Andrews is, obviously, near and dear to my heart because it’s the home of golf, and I’ve been able to win a couple of Opens there, but we rotate. This is different. This is where all the great champions have ever played. They have walked these grounds.”
Woods has now completed 98 trips around Augusta National, none as painful as Sunday’s this year. His gait grew more laboured as the round wore on and the ankle continued to swell. When asked after the round to describe his level of discomfort, he smiled with his face but shouted with his eyes.
So, what’s next?
Woods told Sky Sports that he will play in the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, a dead-flat golf course he feasted on in his younger years. Before then are two more Majors: the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where Woods won in 2007, albeit on an unrecognisable golf course from the newly renovated one that’ll greet the pros this month; and the US Open at The Country Club, where ankle-high rough awaits. Don’t count on him being there. Woods current game leans on guile and creativity. US Opens prioritise strength and consistency. Southern Hills is a much better bet.
“I will try, there’s no doubt,” Woods said of the PGA Championship. “This week, I will try to get ready for Southern Hills, and we’ll see what this body is able to do.”
After fulfilling his media obligations at Augusta National he bear-hugged Sam, then Charlie. Tiger needed his 13-year-old son to shoulder some of his weight just to make it up a short flight of steps. Then he disappeared from view, accompanied by the people who matter.
Photo by getty images: Gregory Shamus