Augusta, Georgia – “Tiger!” A voice came from the gallery near the ninth tee. “Are you going to play in the back nine?”
“Today?” Woods replied, “Are you kidding?” tone.
No, Woods did not play in the second nine of August on Monday, nor did he play in holes 1-9 on Sunday. He is walking on his own, preparing for what will be a landmark return after a catastrophic car crash 14 months ago that left him with a pair of broken legs.
As of Monday night, Woods has yet to commit to playing 18 holes a day and has yet to announce his intention for the Masters, which begins Thursday. But keep these tips in mind:
Woods walked cautiously but mostly without limping on Monday, a day after doing the same on a much steeper second nine track.
He spent most of the round in full tiger mode, ignoring the hundreds of sounds of “Be, tiger!” calls. But he was knowledgeable enough to beat a five with several young children and at least one young man confined to a wheelchair.
He was free, joking with game partners Justin Thomas and Fred Piples and hitting the ball in the face of his driver as he walked from the eighth green to the ninth green.
He played well, bypassing Thomas on several holes and reaching the green par-5 eighth of two. His blows swept the truth, even if he didn’t bend down to pre-read the greens.
Most notably, he spent a lot of time on what in most years was a Sunday hairpin. This is not what they do when they are on the last holes of a casual walk on the track.
At this time last year, Woods was alone, being treated and rehabilitated out of the public eye after an accident so devastating that he nearly lost his leg. At the time, orthopedic experts said it could be months, if not years, before Woods could even walk normally, let alone play elite golf again.
Woods was a ghost of social media; Golf Twitter has deciphered a video in which he is limping, walking or waving a club like a biblical scholar looking for hidden meanings.
The world of golf was moving without him. Phil Mickelson surprised the world by winning another major and then – not surprisingly – set fire to his reputation by trying to start a fight with the PGA Tour. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambo began and apparently finished what still looks like divination created for television. John Rum captured the title of the best player in the world, and the United States directly mocked Europe right on the stage of the Rider Cup.
Through it all, Woods watched, sometimes commented, and worked. Worked hard, worked harder than anyone who already has 15 majors and proves nothing, shouldn’t work. And in December, the world of golf for the first time looked at the fruits of this work: took second place with his son Charlie at the PNC Championship. A usually hilarious little giggling event, Woods treated him with all the solemnity of a major, reveling in the opportunity to play with his son, but still doing his best to bring home another title. The Woods team did not have time to face the Daley team, but the message was clear: Woods is not over.
Astute Masters reviewers caught Mickelson joining the list of “former champions who don’t play,” which in itself came as a shock. But they also noted that Woods is still among the players in the 2022 event. Probably he just didn’t have time to tell Augusta National he wouldn’t play, right? True…?
Then last week, Twitter detectives tracked the plane registered to Woods, noting that the flight plan originated near Jupiter, Florida, and ended near Augusta, Georgia. Even in August such great secrets are hard to keep, and news has leaked out that Woods, Charlie and Thomas have been playing on the course, obviously a preamble to a potential return.
On Sunday morning, Woods spurred speculation, noting that he still plans to play pending the results of two rounds on Sunday and Monday afternoon. Sunday’s round was closed to the public, but on Monday afternoon Woods dialed the numbers usually reserved for the weekend when Woods is on the hunt.
They greeted Woods every drive, chip and pot. They clapped him standing as he walked by. They, of course, shouted “climb into the hole”, but only this time, even it was not too annoying. All the while Woods was walking in a thin step, stretching in quiet periods and clearly not straining.
Of course, Woods could wake up tomorrow morning with a spine similar to fusilli pasta, and he could decide that 36 or 72 holes of Augusta National would be more of a failure than a triumph. But other than that, it all seems like Woods can make a great comeback, whether he plays on the weekend or not.
As Woods walked from the first green to the second tee, one course marshal looked at the few remaining visitors down the first fairway. “It is preparing to become a real silence by the end of the day,” he said, laughing.
And when Woods returns to the Masters, by the end of the week it will be very loud.