AUGUSTA — Tiger Woods has played in 22 Masters, which means he has seen almost everything Augusta National Golf Club has to offer. Still, when he entered the interview room for his traditional pretournament press conference Tuesday, he paused.
“Wow,” he said. “This is different.”
Woods’s media availabilities tend to draw standing-room attendance. But with social-distancing measures restricting capacity, a room that usually holds some 150 people instead contained 27. Woods has probably played to bigger crowds in private dining rooms.
Nineteen months ago, a long par-5 from where he sat and smiled Tuesday, Woods won his 15th major championship. He won here in 1997 as a 21-year-old, rushing off the green to embrace his father, Earl. Earl died in 2006. Last April, it was Tiger’s children waiting for him.
“That was one of the most—I'm still getting chills just thinking about it—feelings, coming up 18, and knowing that all I have to do is just two-putt that little 15-footer,” he said, choking up. “To see my family there and my mom and my kids and all of the people that helped support me or were there for me in the tough times, and I was walking up there trying not to lose it, and still saying, Hey, I've still got to two-putt this. Then I walked off the back of the green, to see [then 10-year-old son] Charlie there, [and we] just opened up our arms. It meant a lot to me and still does. It just reminded me so much of me and my dad, and to come full circle like that, it stills gets me a little teary.”
But coming full circle means closing the loop. And Woods is not ready to do that.
His results have not been good since he slipped on the green jacket for the fifth time. He has won one tournament since that day, the 2019 Zozo Championship, and his best finish since the sport’s pandemic-induced hiatus ended in July is T37 at August’s PGA Championship. He acknowledged Tuesday that he might “never have the opportunity to take the jacket off property again.” But he also insisted that he has a chance to win this event.
“Do I expect to contend?” he said. “Yes, I do. I mean, you look at Freddie [Couples] and Bernhard [Langer]: They are in their 60s and they seem to contend. Jack [Nicklaus] contended here when he was 58. It can be done. This is a golf course in which having an understanding how to play and where to miss it and how to hit the shots around here, it helps.”
Woods, 44, occasionally slips into elder-statesman talk. But he has not fully embraced that role. For the last three years, he has played a Monday practice round with Couples, who won here in 1992, and 27-year-old Justin Thomas, who is waiting for his first green jacket. Thomas treats the outings as mentoring sessions. Only one of the older men agrees.
“Tiger is less willing to give me information than Freddie is,” said Thomas. “I know if I ask Freddie, he'll answer, whereas Tiger this week probably won't answer.”
Woods laughed. “We share tidbits as past champions,” he said. “But also we keep a few things, too.”
Tiger Woods at the Masters is a threat to win. The question will be how similar this year is to a normal Masters. We will likely not see a typical chilly November, but the wind may blow from the north, making the course longer than usual. The course has played softer over the past few weeks, and with rain in the forecast this week it may grow softer still. Woods feels more comfortable on fast greens and plays as creatively as anyone in history; a soft course could soften his advantage there. And perhaps most notable—especially for Woods—will be the lack of fans.
“They helped me win,” he said of the 2019 crowds. “The support that I had, the energy that was around the property, it was electric that day.”
Many things will be different when the tournament kicks off on Thursday: Azaleas are out of season. The silent course means golfers can hear one another whisper to their caddies. Woods’s usually massive traveling party has been pared down to his girlfriend, Erica Harman, and his friend and confidant Rob McNamara. Woods is ranked No. 33 in the world. But he is still Tiger Woods. And this is still the Masters.
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