AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s a testament to the strange days of 2020 that Justin Thomas’ news conference on Tuesday at Augusta National included four questions about Bryson DeChambeau and the Mad Scientist’s pursuit of pure, unapologetic power and just two - which were positioned well toward the end of his media Q&A - about Tiger Woods.
You remember Tiger, right? He’s the defending champion this week, which you might not have noticed if you waded through recent social media posts about clubhead speed and headlines about 48-inch shafted drivers.
Last year was Tiger’s fifth victory at the Masters, pulling him to within a single green jacket of all-time champion Jack Nicklaus, and his 15th major championship. It was a magical Sunday filled with drama and emotion and the kind of redemptive subtext that makes sports so entertaining.
Even , some 19 months removed from that victory, Woods, whose stoic demeanor is as much a part of his persona as wearing red and black on Sundays, still allows himself to get caught up in that moment.
“I'm getting chills just thinking about it,” he started before launching into a rare depth of emotional range. “Coming up 18, and knowing that all I have to do is just two-putt that little 15-footer and 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.”
In the grand tale of 82 PGA Tour victories picking a favorite is silly, but for Tiger, the 2019 Masters will always stand apart from the others - with the lone exception being his triumph in ’97 at Augusta National. That was historic. That was providence and impossible to compare or forget, just like last year’s victory. Or at least it was until, well, 2020.
Perhaps it’s the first November Masters played without patrons that’s made this such an odd afterthought. These are, after all, conversations and celebrations golf should have had six months ago, before the pandemic changed the world.
There’ll be no patrons to cheer for Tiger this week. There won’t even be a full contingent of family to celebrate his return. It’s just his girlfriend, Erica Herman, and confidant, Rob McNamara, along for the victory lap. No daughter, Sam, or son, Charlie, who completed the moment last year as his father walked off the 18th green and the two embraced.
“It's not how I wanted to retain the jacket, for this long,” Woods admitted. “This has been an unprecedented circumstance we're all dealing with. It's been incredible to have the jacket and to have it around the house and to share with people, but to have it this long, it's not the way I want to have it. I wanted to earn it back in April, but obviously we didn't have that.”
There will be the traditional Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, but the venue was moved to allow for more social distancing and Woods suggested last month that attendance will likely be down considering the circumstances.
Tiger’s game is well short of where it was 19 months ago when he arrived at Augusta National, which has prompted some to overlook him this week. That’s always dangerous with Tiger, but the results paint a poor picture.
Heading into the ’19 Masters, Woods had played five times and posted three top-20 finishes. He managed just six total starts during the Tour’s pandemic-impacted season and posted just a single top-10 finish, way back in January.
Maybe there’s something to Bryson’s grand plan. During a practice round on Monday, after hitting a monster drive at the par-4 11th hole that left him just a pitching wedge into the green, Dr. Stranger Than Fiction asked Tiger, “What did you hit in ’97?” Woods told him pitching wedge. “I’m like, ‘That’s cool, all right,’” DeChambeau said.
Or maybe all this distance fuss is simply the tail wagging the dog. Either way, it’s created a strange subset of priorities at what in any other universe would have revolved around Tiger and his return to the scene of arguably the most iconic moment in a career filled with iconic moments.
Maybe DeChambau will win five green jackets and revolutionize the game with his science-driven brand of golf. Or maybe six months from now, when the golf world returns to Augusta National, the conversation will have drifted to the next experiment. What will not have changed is Tiger’s place in the tournament’s history.
There is no shortage of reasons why Tiger’s return to Augusta National has been relatively overshadowed. This celebration was supposed to happen in the spring framed by azaleas and cheered by thousands. Instead we have the early vestiges of fall in the trees and deafening silence.
Tiger is still the defending champion. He’s still the engine that drives the game. He’s still the guy who made last year’s Masters so magical. And it’s still 2020.