He may be battling time, an ailing body and a raft of young guns inspired by his past heroics, but Tiger Woods is once again the talk of the town ahead of the 83rd Masters at Augusta this week.
The fact is, Woods is the hot topic any time he tees it up at Augusta – four Green Jackets in a devastating spell from 1997 to 2005 are proof enough of his credentials. Plus, in the 10 Masters he has played since that last win, he has finished out of the top six only three times.
But this year, Woods is the fittest he has been in years after spine-fusion surgery in 2017 halted what threatened to be a sad demise to a remarkable career, and he is forging a fresh era into his 40s off the back of an 80th PGA Tour title and first victory since 2013 at the season-ending Tour Championship in September.
“I’ve got a pretty good library in my head of how to play the golf course,” said Woods, who last year also briefly led the Open before finishing tied sixth and was runner up at the US PGA. “I’ve had some success here.”
He added: “Winning at East Lake confirmed to me I can still win again.”
He may not be the favorite – Rory McIlroy is the leading fancy – but the possibility of Woods resuming his major quest by adding a 15th, 11 years after his last, is quite the redemption tale. Victory at the revered Augusta National this week would put him just one Green Jacket behind record holder Jack Nicklaus, whose mark of 18 majors Woods is also chasing.
“I would just never rule him [Woods] out. Greatness is still in him,” said Phil Mickelson, who is chasing a fourth Masters title, of his old adversary.
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‘Very special place’
The last 43-year-old to win the Masters was Ben Crenshaw in 1995, while the oldest Masters champion was Nicklaus, who put the gloss on his illustrious major career with a sixth Green Jacket at the age of 46 in 1986. But if age is against him, Woods is the highest-ranked player (at 12th) of all former champions in the field.
“I don’t need to win again, but I really want to,” said Woods, who will tee off at 11:04 a.m. EDT alongside China’s Haotong Li and Spaniard Jon Rahm for the first two rounds.
Even without Woods, the Masters is the one golf event even non golfers are glued to. It’s a spring rite, a sporting spectacle at a revered venue layered in rich history and dripping in tradition.
The vivid greens, ice-white sand of the bunkers and explosions of iridescent pinks and reds of blooming azaelas make for a brilliant backdrop, in stark contrast to the raffish Washington Road strip beyond the fence. It’s a bucket-list event and the difficulty of getting tickets – a yearly lottery offers a limited number of day passes, but the waiting list for weekly badges is long-since closed – adds to the allure.
For the players, Augusta places a premium on length and second-shot accuracy – knowing where to miss is often touted as one of the keys – while a sharp short game and deft putting stroke is required on the slick, sloping greens.
When the tournament really hots up on Sunday afternoon, the roars accompanying great shots will explode like incendiaries and reverberate around the towering pines like nowhere else in golf.
“This is unlike any other golf tournament. It’s just a very special place,” said Woods.
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Grand slam quest
Away from Woods mania, the other main narrative at Augusta is McIlroy’s ongoing quest to become just the sixth player in history to win golf’s grand slam of all four majors titles.
Inclusion in golf’s ultra elite club alongside Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Woods would convey greatness, but Augusta has become McIlroy’s semi nemesis.
Since putting himself on the brink of the grand slam when he won the 2014 Open Championship, McIlroy has struggled to properly contend despite finishing in the top 10 each time. Last year, he began the final day three shots behind Patrick Reed in the final group but slipped back as the American clinched his first major.
However, McIlroy has been in sublime form this season, culminating in victory in the Players Championship at Sawgrass, and many suspect this is the week he will add to his tally of four majors for the first time since 2014.
The Northern Irishman has been reading books on sports psychology of late, and credits a new mental attitude with his stellar start to the year.
“Look, I’m not going to go live with the monks for a couple of months in Nepal,” said McIlroy, who tees off with Rickie Fowler and Australian Cameron Smith in the group behind Woods Thursday.
“I meditated for 20 minutes on the Sunday morning of the Players Championship. My routine now consists of meditation, juggling and mind training, doing all the stuff to get you in the right place.”
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The Masters, which began in 1934 on a new course on the site of a former fruit nursery, is the youngest of golf’s majors but as the only one at the same venue every year it has built up its own unique traditions.
Tuesday’s Champions Dinner is one, when the defending champion chooses the menu and hosts the previous winners in the clubhouse – Reed is serving bone-in ribeye steak and macaroni cheese as mains. “I’m definitely going to fatten everyone up,” he said.
Another is the Par-3 contest over the short course around Ike’s Pond on the eve of the Masters, before honorary starters Nicklaus, 79, and Player, 83, get the tournament under way on the first tee Thursday.
Among other fancied contenders in the 87-man field – the smallest since 1997 – is England’s Justin Rose, who regained his world No.1 crown from Dustin Johnson at the beginning of the week and is a two-time runner-up.
“I’ve had enough good golf to give me confidence and I’ve had enough poor golf to keep me working hard,” Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, told reporters at Augusta of his year so far.
Then there’s the powerful Johnson himself, a two-time winner already this year with a best of fourth at Augusta.
One player who would surprise no one should he be in contention on Sunday would be world No. 33 Jordan Spieth.
The Texan, a three-time major champion, has struggled of late, but in five Masters appearances he has won, finished second twice, come third and 11th.
Spieth’s wire-to-wire victory in 2015 and dominance for three rounds in 2016 suggested he was the new king at Augusta. But a meltdown on the treacherous short 12th scuppered his bid for back-to-back titles.
A final-round 64 to finish third behind Reed last year showed Spieth can plot his way around even when he isn’t at his best.
In truth, the tournament is wide open, and a coveted Green Jacket beckons for the man who can get in position and withstand the crackling atmosphere of a Masters Sunday afternoon.
“It’s electric. I’ve heard it and I’ve felt it and it’s exciting to be part of,” added Woods.
“I get a rush out of pulling off shots sometimes I’ve only dreamed of pulling off.
“I know I can play this golf course, I’ve had some success here.”