By Dan Rapaport
AUGUSTA — The patrons formed a tunnel of pure adulation and serenaded their limping hero. Those who couldn’t elbow their way to high-five territory gathered just behind the press-only section, desperate to milk every last second of their proximity to Tiger Woods. Five greencoats mingled just outside the scoring area, looking for someone to chat with and needing no invitation to stick around. Bryson DeChambeau stood under the tree, dressed head to toe in Masters green. Joe LaCava had already jetted for the car, eager to unload the precious cargo into a trunk, but not before offering a “see you down the road” to some friendly media faces. Bubba Watson hovered nearby and caught the attention of Erica Herman. She peeled away from Sam and Charlie and Tida and Rob, pushed onto her tip-toes and embraced the big lefty.
“I hope you’re proud of him,” Watson said. She smiled, but she did not say anything.
No words could possibly express the mixture of gratitude and sheer amazement that pulsed throughout the acre just outside Augusta National’s clubhouse. Woods had just shot a round that, a decade earlier, would’ve prompted an existential crisis. Seventy-eight, for a second straight day. A 12-over weekend and a 47th-place finish. And yet there he was, smiling through the pain.
“To go from where I was to get to this point, I’ve had an incredible team that has helped me get to this point,” he said. “And incredible support from — as I alluded to in the press conference on Tuesday, the amount of texts and FaceTimes and calls I got from players that are close to me throughout this entire time has meant a lot.
“Then to come here on these grounds and have the patrons — I played in a COVID year, and then I didn’t play last year; 2019 was the last time for me that I experienced having the patrons like this, and it’s exciting. It’s inspiring.”
That he even considered playing in this event speaks to the potency of an inhuman work ethic paired with modern medical technology. Woods has rods and screws and plates in his right leg, which doctors rebuilt after the weight of an SUV crushed it to pieces. He still has difficulty walking on flat ground. Trudging up and down hills requires careful consideration. His one-under 71 on Thursday looks increasingly preposterous, and we don’t know the half of it. The few pros that’ve wiggled their way into his famously tight circle have seen pictures of the post-accident damage. They’ve received texts from Woods at ungodly morning hours as he preps for another day of rehab. Tiger did not take a single day off after he left his in-home hospital bed 11 months ago, refusing to accept any other outcome than walking Amen Corner on the second Sunday of April.
“This tournament has meant so much to me and my family, this entire tournament. I was explaining it there to Cara (Banks, Sky Sports) that you go back to the year I was born was the year that the first black man played in the Masters in Lee Elder,” Woods said. “He was an honorary starter last year. He was there when I won in 1997. Twenty-five years later here I am playing again.
“It’s meant a lot to me, and there’s no other place that — well, there’s no other place, no other major that we play in the same venue. St Andrews is, obviously, near and dear to my heart because it’s the home of golf, and I’ve been able to win a couple of Opens there, but we rotate. This is different. This is where all the great champions have ever played. They have walked these grounds.”
Woods has now completed 98 trips around Augusta National, none as painful as Sunday’s. His gait grew more labored as the round wore on and the ankle continued to swell. When asked after the round to describe his level of discomfort, he smiled with his face but shouted with his eyes. His playing partner, Jon Rahm, saw it clear as day.
“You can just tell that his leg is just not quite up there yet,” Rahm said. “I’ve seen him in the truck. He is limping in the truck. He is limping on the course. Obviously, he is trying very hard to play, but it’s not easy to walk up and down those hills. At the end you can just tell that his leg and his body are just not used to walking this much, right?
“I believe if at home he can walk and get strength up and stamina in that sense, he will be able to be competitive again. This is the hardest walk all year. He will be able to go somewhere where it’s a little easier to walk. It won’t be as long, and I believe he’ll be able to contend.”
Put yourself in Woods’ shoes — in those initial post-round moments, the last thing you’d want to think about is golf. A nice seet not an ice-cold bath. But that’s exactly where Woods’ head went: the future. Which, for him, means 5am wake-up calls and adrenaline-addled lifts. Let’s hope he also sneaks in some putting practice. Oddly, the least physical aspect of this game gave him fits over the weekend. Saturday could well have been the worst putting performance of his career, and Sunday wasn’t much better. Whether that’s due to rust or discomfort or fatigue, only he knows.
The same can be said for when we’ll see him next, though we know it won’t be often. Woods told Sky Sports that he will play in the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews, a dead-flat golf course he feasted on in his younger years. Between now and then are two major championships: the PGA at Southern Hills, where Woods won in 2007, albeit on an unrecognisable golf course from the newly renovated one that’ll greet the pros next month; and the US Open at The Country Club, where ankle-high rough awaits. Don’t count on him being there. Woods current game leans on guile and creativity. US Opens prioritise strength and consistency. Southern Hills is a much better bet.
“I will try, there’s no doubt,” Woods said of the PGA Championship, which begins in 39 days. “This week, I will try to get ready for Southern Hills, and we’ll see what this body is able to do.”
— The Masters (@TheMasters) April 10, 2022
This week. There will be no time to decompress from these grueling four days. He will not bask in the glory of what he admitted might be his greatest achievement that didn’t yield a trophy. Woods will never play a full schedule of tournaments again. Five back surgeries, five left-knee surgeries and who-knows-how-many surgeries on his right leg simply won’t let him. He will, however, maintain a full schedule of physical therapy and rehabilitation—all so he can play one, two, maybe three events for the rest of the year. He knows no other way.
“I don’t quite have the endurance that I would like to have, but as of a few weeks ago, didn’t even know if I was going to play in this event,” he said. “To go from that to here — we’re excited about the prospects of the future, about training, about getting into that gym and doing some other stuff to get my leg stronger, which we haven’t been able to do because it needed more time to heal.
“We’ll get back after it, and we’ll get into it.”
We is common parlance in modern professional golf. Players have larger entourages than ever, and caddies play an outsized role in the decision making progress. Gone are the days of “show up, keep up and shut up.” Still, to hear Woods, so fiercely individual in his prime, talk all week of a team effort speaks to the deep appreciation he has for those around him. For his doctors and “PTs”, as he calls them. For LaCava’s fierce loyalty. For Rob McNamara, always by his side. For Erica and for his children, who’ve sacrificed time with dad so he can do what he does best.
“Very, very thankful,” Woods said on Tuesday. That’s the word he most closely associates with this latest comeback. Not resiliency, or determination. Thankful. “For just everyone’s support, everyone who’s been involved in my process of the work that I’ve put in each and every day, the people I work with, my whole team.”
After fulfilling his media obligations on Sunday he bear-hugged Sam, then Charlie. Tiger needed his 13-year-old son to shoulder some of his weight just to make it up a short flight steps. Then he disappeared from view, accompanied by the people who matter.
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