Tiger Woods' return to Augusta is grabbing all the headlines this week, but there are a number of other storylines to follow should his play disappoint.
AUGUSTA, Georgia — This year’s Masters is, without question, the greatest sporting event that hasn’t happened yet. Tiger Woods is back, Rory McIlroy is hot, Phil Mickelson is back and hot, Jordan Spieth is lurking, Dustin Johnson is hitting tee shots 600 yards, Rickie Fowler is going to dress like an inchworm and Justin Thomas will try to destroy them all. I haven’t been so excited for a sporting event since the Olympic gold-medal curling game. I know, I know: I need to settle down.
This Masters will really begin when Sergio Garcia hits his first drive into the trees, bitterly declares that he will never win here, then remembers he won here last year. And from then on, we will all watch Tiger.
Everybody is watching Tiger—most pulling for him—and wondering if what we have seen these few months is real. Even the players will keep one eye on Tiger, which could lead to quite a few wayward drives.
As Tiger’s pal Justin Thomas told me recently, “You’re pulling for him. But I don’t know, I want to beat him just like anybody else in the field. You have to find a happy medium of: How much do I want to pull for this guy?”
I’ll tell you how much. Very much. Whole bunkers full of much. Everybody here loves Tiger now. Even Phil loves Tiger! The two former rivals played a practice round together Tuesday, and Tiger eagled Nos. 13 and 15, and Phil wore a button-down shirt in a bizarre attempt to sell Tiger life insurance. It was one big happy practice round.
And then … and then: On Wednesday, the new chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, Fred Ridley, announced the creation of a new tournament: the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship. It will be played the week before the Masters.
Yes: Women. Playing Augusta National. The week before the Masters. In a competitive tournament. For a club that has been slow to keep up with overall societal evolution, this is tremendous progress. You have to try really hard to criticize Augusta National for this one. It’s a fantastic move.
The non-golfing folks in green jackets are approaching good-guy status. Maybe that is the only problem this week. There are no villains.
Then Ian Poulter won last week to book his spot in the tournament and fill that role.
Thank God for that.
If you were a golf fan 15 years ago, all roads led to Tiger Woods. This Masters is even better: Everything starts with Tiger, but if he plays himself out of contention, there are so many other roads that can carry you through Sunday night. We’ve got Spieth Street, Bubba Watson Lane, and Dustin Johnson Avenue, which was just a cul-de-sac last year. Remember? D.J. was playing better than anybody else in the world when he injured his back during Masters week. He said he fell down the stairs of his rental home because he was wearing socks on a hardwood floor. The moral, of course: rent a one-story house.
Here is how loaded this Masters field is: Johnson might not even be the most likely champion in his own grouping. He’ll play the first two rounds with Justin Rose, who lost to Garcia in a sudden-death playoff last year. If anybody is due to win this thing, it’s Rose. Since 2007, he has finished in the top 10 five times. Over the last three years he is 22 under par here, with two second-place finishes.
And in his last seven PGA Tour events going back to last October, Rose has five top-eight finishes and is a combined 60 under par.
It will be interesting to see how the stars deal with the return of Tiger and the possibility of a loaded leaderboard. It might help some relax – nobody faces the kind of expectations that Johnson would have faced last year, Spieth had in 2016, or McIlroy in 2015. McIlroy had won the previous two majors, the 2014 British Open and PGA Championship, and he said this week when he got to Augusta, “I felt that anticipation and that hype, and I nearly built it up in my head a little bit too much.”
We don’t know how this will unfold, and mostly, we don’t know how Tiger will play. Woods will face major championship pressure for the first time since spinal-fusion surgery revived his career. The young Tiger lived for this stuff. This Tiger has more balance in his life. He doesn’t get to practice as much. He is grateful just to be pain-free and playing golf. If he has a club in his hand and a green jacket in his sights, can he still hit the shots he needs to hit, at the moments when he most needs to hit them?
This week, we start to find out.