AUGUSTA, Ga. — The last of the spring morning chill, murder on Tiger Woods’ sore, rebuilt leg, burned as he started his round at the Masters. It was nice in the shade here at Augusta National. Huge crowds surrounded the entire first hole. There might as well have been no one else playing.
It all came to a halt at 11:04 a.m. ET Thursday to watch Woods. Tournament workers abandoned their stations and rushed to the ropes, as the major problem in professional golf returned to center stage: the most interesting thing in the sport isn’t the current stars showing off their skills, but if a 46 year old can even walk around the course. Tiger isn’t the only story in golf, but he’s the only story that matters to anyone who isn’t really into golf, if that makes sense. That energy was palpable for the first round at Augusta National Golf Club. The crowd murmured as he stood over the ball, roared as he made contact and cheered him on as he dug in for the steep climb up the fairway. He walked like a man expending all his energy trying not to limp.
He was a victim of his own violent swing, his own bad decisions, bad luck, but in the end his legacy will be defined by how he refused to be a victim at all. He could have quit after his car accident. The 2019 Masters bought him peace. Instead, he is still here. Whatever Tiger Woods is chasing now has little to do with his fellow golfers. There were two races going on Thursday, as there will be anytime Woods shows up to play an event. In one, a group of incredibly talented competitors go head-to-head in a popular niche sport. In the other, one of the most watched men of his generation is engaged in a fight with his own body. If he just makes it to the end, he will emerge victorious whether he wins or not.
He says he can win.
“I can hit it very well,” he said. “Walking is the hardest part.”
Tiger’s future, a time when he no longer believed in it, lurked everywhere around him in Augusta. Early Thursday morning, while receiving treatment from his team of therapists, three golf legends took the annual ceremonial first shots, officially starting the tournament. The crowds let out huge roars for Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson, who had the rare privilege of feeling some of the magic they once took for granted as young men.
Augusta President Fred Ridley announces the first tee shots for honorary Masters starters Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson.
“I get pretty choked up when I get on that tee in the morning,” Player said.
Then the three legends arrived in the interview room for a big round of sugary nostalgia – a glimpse of what awaits Tiger Woods once he accepts his days of competing for the titles are over. It didn’t seem imminent watching it on Thursday. He fights not to join the pieces of the museum which strike the ceremonial blows. It’s always hard to know when to leave.
“There’s nothing worse than seeing a punch-drunk boxer and athletes trying to come back,” Player said.
The three men were joking about their rounds of golf when Player puffed out his chest.
“If I can brag for a minute,” he said, “I’ve beaten my age over 2,000 times in a row. In a row.”
“You have the record,” Jack said. “We don’t challenge you.”
They were all driving.
“I shot my age the first time when I was 64,” Nicklaus said.
“Me too,” Watson said.
“Me too,” said Player, who is 86. “Isn’t it interesting, all three of us did it at 64?”
It’s been 18 years for Tiger Woods, who rightly believes he still has majors to win. There is no joy for him to go around the course.
“He doesn’t want to play for the sake of playing,” his friend Fred Couples said. “He can play at home.
Yet the long, easy pasture of nostalgia awaits. He can see it. Earlier this week, at the Champions Dinner, Woods sat around a table as Watson asked Nicklaus to run all past winners through the back nine from 1986, when Jack won his last major , when he was the same age as Tiger.
“Do you want me to go blow by blow?” Nicklaus asked.
“Hell yeah,” Watson said.
So Jack did it, meter by meter, everyone bending over.
“I was looking around the table,” Watson said, “the guys at the table were just – they wanted to hear – because everyone at that table had been in that position before, winning the tournament. they wanted to hear the inside, what Jack was thinking inside as he played the last nine holes.”
Jack spoke and Tiger listened, still a man absorbing information, looking for an edge, still trying to write his story, knowing his own winter of storytelling is just around the corner. His time as a performer is short, maybe 10 more years if his back and leg cooperate. So while the rest of the field works this week to win a tournament, Tiger struggles against gravity that brings all great champions down to earth.
He fought valiantly on Thursday. He managed three birdies. He fired more than a few tee shots. He grabbed his back after a swing. He wore his pain outside for all to see. There was nothing to hide it. He tossed a tuft of grass in the air at Amen Corner and stared down the tunnel. His shots all seemed to land a bit short. After a misbehaved ball went off the green, Tiger shouted from the pine straw, “F— off!”
His swing held up. His body held out, most of the time. Once he used his driver as a cane. Once he spoke to himself, asking for help on the air.
“Come on, leg,” he muttered. “F—.”
On the back nine, he faced a lie in the pine straw, necessitating one of those famous Tiger moments. He closed his eyes for three or four whole seconds. Some observers felt that he was preparing his body for pain. Then, centered, he unleashed a monstrous swing, his most powerful and violent of the day, his body twisting and rattling with the recoil of the shot. The shot looked perfect.
He finished with momentum heading into Friday’s second round, saving par on the last hole. More than five hours after he started, he finished 1 under, within striking distance of the lead. Her first competitive round in 17 months was a success. Eventually he left the class, not to rest but to endure the long ritual to make the swelling in his leg go away so he could wake up the next day and try it all once more. He remains a public man pursuing something private, a goal that is both courageous and chimerical. Perhaps a distant version of him watches time with pride and amusement, already knowing how it all must end.