- A year ago golf fans were celebrating Tiger Woods getting out of bed. Now we’re talking about him as a contender at Augusta once again. It’s all so different, and familiar, at the same time.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — In many ways, the scene was the same Tuesday as a year ago. There were the azaleas lining the press-conference stage. There were the reporters, overflowing the 152 seats in the interview room, standing against the back wall. There were the lines around Tiger Woods’s eyes.
But in the ways that matter to Woods, and to the golf world that revolves around him, everything was different—and, at last, familiar. At the 2018 Masters, reporters had all but congratulated Woods on walking across the stage and lowering himself into his chair. And he deserved it. He acknowledged that the event was something of a reunion tour for him, that everything beyond the “nice, comfortable, great life” he had begun to plan for himself was just bonus. He batted away questions about whether he might contend. He just wanted to play golf without doubling over in pain. On Tuesday, he mused briefly about attempting the Tiger Slam for a second time.
He is probably more equipped to win here than anywhere else, and he knows it. In 1997, the year he first won here, he outdrove the next longest hitter by an average of 23 yards. The year before that, it was 36. That advantage has evaporated—he enters the tournament ranked No. 44 on Tour in driving distance—but he has replaced it with experience. He's scrutinized every inch of the course, playing practice rounds alongside past champions and studying their approaches. He's tracked every adjustment Augusta National has made—many of them in an attempt to Tiger-proof the place—and noted how he might adjust alongside it. He may be more comfortable on these 18 holes than anyone else on earth. Unlike so much else in Tiger's life, this place does not really change.
“I’ve more than anything just proven to myself that I can play at this level again,” Woods said of the past 12 months. “I’ve worked my way back into [being] one of the players that can win events.”
Worked perhaps understates the mountain he has climbed. The proud champion had felt himself diminished by pain from a series of injuries to his lower back. He needed help to rise from bed in the mornings. He would ferry his son Charlie to courses and watch him play, unable to join in. At one point, Woods went outside to practice, hit a flop shot over a bunker and crumpled to the grass. He couldn’t get up. He lay there in pain until his daughter, Sam, came looking for him and called for help.
“My back’s not doing very good,” he explained to her.
“Again?” she asked.
Woods endured epidurals, cortisone shots, a pharmacy’s worth of painkillers. (Sometimes those got the best of him; in May 2017, he was arrested and charged with DUI. He pled guilty to reckless driving and announced that he had completed a treatment program for his use of prescription drugs.) Nothing worked. “In hindsight," he said last year, the idea that he could have played this event in ’16 or ’17 “was a big pipe dream.” In the end, he submitted to a fourth back surgery—a spinal fusion—shortly after the ’17 Masters.
So when he returned last year to this place, the site of so many triumphs—four victories, a hundred indelible moments—he spoke more of wistfulness than of winning. He was less than a year removed from the operation and had played only six tournaments with his new spine. He was ranked No. 105 in the world; even that seemed at times a stretch. “For a couple of years I’ve been coming here just to eat [at the champions dinner],” Woods said, a few minutes after finishing 32nd at Augusta National last April. “I missed it. I really did.”
Now he enters having won last year’s Tour Championship, at East Lake, two hours west of here, for his first victory on Tour since 2013 and his 80th of all time. (It left him two behind Sam Snead’s career mark.) He briefly led on Sunday at the British Open before finishing three strokes back of Francesco Molinari. Woods is ranked No. 12 in the world rankings. As they did every year from 1997 until 2013, people discuss him as if he has a real shot to slip on the green jacket.
“We all know he’s back,” said Brooks Koepka, who has won two of the last three majors. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The comeback briefly appeared derailed, when Woods withdrew the Monday of tournament week from the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He cited a neck strain and insisted amid frenzied speculation that he would be fine. He was right; at the Players the next week he stayed close and eventually finished tied for 30th. He skipped Palmer’s tournament, he said, because he did not want to push himself too much heading into the Masters.
The final question in last year’s press conference was about Woods’s “second lease on life.” On Tuesday it was about how well he had to play on Thursday (11:04 AM ET tee time) to be in position to win. As Woods rose and began to walk off the stage, a reporter called his name. “Are you practicing today?” he asked. Woods stopped. “Can we?” he asked, his eyes bright. The course had been closed that morning due to thunderstorms, but it had reopened 15 minutes before his press conference began. Yes, the reporter said. “Then yes,” Woods answered. Then he stared forward and straightened his back and stalked out the door.