AUGUSTA, Georgia — Here was a simple act. At 8:33 on Tuesday morning, four players stood on the tee box at Augusta National, preparing to play a nine-hole practice round for the Masters, which begins on Thursday. It was an esteemed foursome: Tiger Woods with his four green jackets, Phil Mickelson with his three and Fred Couples with his one. They were joined by Belgian Thomas Pieters, 26, who finished fourth last year and is 16 years younger than Woods, the next-youngest in the group. The players briefly milled about before Mickelson looked toward Woods, lifted his chin and fixed the hitting order: “Tiger: Four, three, one. You go first.” Simple.
Everybody within earshot laughed, including Woods. And there were a lot of everybodys—a two- and three- and four-deep crowd horseshoeing around the tee and spilling down the sides of the fairway. It would remain that way for the foursome’s entire two-and-a-half-hour round, four players and four caddies surrounded by a massive swarm of humans moving, amoeba-like (and politely, very politely), across the grounds while vast swaths of the pristine course sat unbothered and others practiced. (While the crowd waited at the 15th tee for the glamour foursome, 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel strolled up alone, ripped his drive down the middle and strolled off, alone). Over the course of the round, there would be shouts and screams and collective outcries that didn’t quite rise to the level of roars, but inched up to whatever line defines such undefinable things. In many ways, it was a Tuesday that felt like a Thursday. Or a Sunday.
Four. Three. One. Simple.
And in one sense, it is simple. The fans on a Tuesday morning at Augusta—and in the broader sports and cultural world itself—are excited because Woods is (apparently) healthy and (obviously) very much a threat to win his fifth green jacket and his first since 2005 and since all that sex and all those injuries and all that public humiliation. The connection between Woods and a group of fans, however large or small, is palpable and alive. As Couples said after the round, “When you play in the tournament, and you play with Tiger, the energy is unreal.”
Not just the energy. Woods’s presence is unreal. The Comeback is among the most reliable tropes in all of sports. Fans love a comeback. Media people like me really love a comeback. The comeback from injury or illness or affairs or arrests—it doesn’t really matter the particular design that takes down the hero—reboots an athlete’s career. It makes them freshly accessible to a public that might have otherwise lost interest. Woods’s comeback is the story of not just who he has become, but also the story, unmistakably and unforgettably, of who—and what—he once was.
It is a story about human frailty (both physical and emotional), medical science and the complex and fragile economics of professional golf. Woods is the paradigm of all these things, not just a human, but a walking documentary film on the fairways of the golf course he loves most in the world. He tests the boundaries of his own body and his fans’ devotion. He shapes the narrative of an entire sport just by swinging a club.
And it’s important to say this: Woods’s current comeback is real. This was obvious before he came to Augusta: Just a year after surgery to fuse two joints in his lower back, Woods has contended in consecutive Tour events, with a second-place finish at the Valspar Championship and a fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Monday, he teamed with Mickelson to beat up on Couples and Pieters. “It was a long course for Fred,” said Woods in a Tuesday afternoon press conference, chiding his 58-year-old opponent. “But it was good, though, because it was an appearance fee.”
Couples was effusive in his praise: “Tiger is driving the ball really well,” he said. “He’s hitting it really, really flush. It’s pretty good.” This was evident throughout the practice round, as Woods flew drives past both Mickelson and Pieters. “The sounds of [Woods’s] ball is unreal,” said Couples. Mickelson concurred. “I find that I want him to play well,” said Mickelson. “And I’m excited to see him play so well.” Pause. “And he is playing well.” As is expected in a practice round, all four players often practiced hitting approaches, chips and putts from various locations, which confuses the scoring to some degree. But on his primary ball, Woods made eagles on both the 13th and 15th holes. (With attendant mini-roars).
This does not mean that Woods will win or closely contend on the weekend. Even he put the brakes on that, when asked about the historical significance of a win this weekend. “Well, I have four rounds to play,” he said, “So let’s just kind of slow down.” But it means that this particular comeback is not smoke and mirrors. It is not Ali taking drugs to look slender before getting beaten onto his stool by Larry Holmes in 1980. This is genuine.
In a blindingly fast-moving culture of fame and future, it’s possible that the details of Woods's rise—and fall—have become blurred, fading into the past. But it’s simple enough: From 1996 to 2013, Woods won 79 PGA tournaments and 14 majors; he was among the most successful and important athletes in history. He was also a cultural phenomenon, a black man dominating one of the whitest of sports—his 12-shot victory at August in 1997, at age 21, shook the golf world to the soles of its feet. That all unraveled, first with nagging injuries and then in public scandal that veered from dispiriting infidelity to jaw-dropping addiction. His body further deteriorated, necessitating multiple surgeries on his back, most of which did not help enough to restore his gifts.
He missed the last two Masters and on Monday repeated what he has said a few times in recent weeks about the agony, and about sitting at the Champions Dinner at Augusta with pain shooting down his leg from the damaged disk in his back. “In hindsight [his previous comeback attempts were] a big pipe dream. My back was fried.” He underwent the fusion surgery last April, seeking only to rid himself of the pain. “I thought prior to the fusion surgery, that’s pretty much it,” said Woods. “I’ll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I’ll never be able to swing the club like I used to.” Instead, he is swinging the club like he used to, his clubhead speed measured at 129 miles per hour during the Valspar tournament. Woods has called it a miracle. And Tuesday he reiterated that. “It is a miracle,” he said. “I went from a person who really had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, to now swinging the club 129. That’s a miracle, isn’t it?”
His presence alters the finances of the game, just as it did when he first rose, more than two decades ago. Back then he caused spikes in television ratings and sponsorship deals. He could do these things again.
This effect has always been complex, swimming upstream against the win-or-lose mentality of sports. Back during Tiger I, Woods was beating people, but also making them monetary winners. Nobody was more affected than Mickelson, 47, who has won 43 Tour events, and five majors. (Including those three Masters). “If you take away Tiger Woods,” said Couples Tuesday, “Phil probably has 10 or 12 majors.” But Mickelson sees it another way: “I’ve had a respect and appreciation for [Woods] and what he’s done for the game, and I’ve benefited more than anyone else.” This is why Mickelson says he reached out to Woods when Woods was struggling. “I’ve reaped the rewards during the good times and I’m very appreciative of what he’s done for me, my family, the game of golf.”
Clearly, Woods, too, has changed. Outwardly, at least. The rest can be unknowable. But outwardly is often the best we get from sports stars. In his prime, he was a sullen killer, dressed in blood red on Sunday. It was part of the show. Even his celebrations seemed driven by a primal anger. Small sample alert: On Tuesday as he walked Augusta, he smiled at fans and acknowledged support shouted in his direction. In talking with reporters, he insisted that his own, ongoing comeback, doesn’t measure up to Ben Hogan’s. (Hogan was badly injured in a car crash at the age of 36, and returned to win six more majors, despite severe pain). He acknowledged the creeping presence of career mortality. “We’re at the tail end of our careers,” he said, talking about himself and Mickelson. “We both know that.”
There will always be challenges for some in embracing Woods. On Tuesday he was asked a complex question about infidelity in America and chose to answer like so: “Yeah, I’m really excited to play the Masters this week.”
This much was clear on Tuesday: Augusta embraced Woods. It will continue to embrace him this week. Crowds will beseech him to make them roar. The longer story is complex, but that part is blessedly simple.