All clues point toward Tiger Woods playing the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Tiger!” came the voice from the gallery around the ninth tee. “Are you going to play the back nine?”

“Today?” Woods replied in an are-you-kidding-me? tone.

No, Woods didn’t play Augusta’s second nine on Monday, just like he didn’t play holes 1-9 on Sunday. He’s pacing himself, preparing for what would be a landmark comeback from a catastrophic car wreck 14 months ago that left him with a pair of broken legs.

As of Monday evening, Woods still hadn’t committed to playing 18 holes in a day yet and still hasn't announced his intention for the Masters, which starts Thursday. But consider these clues:

  • Woods walked gingerly but largely without a limp Monday, a day after doing the same thing on the course’s far steeper second nine.

  • He spent most of the round in full dialed-in Tiger mode, ignoring the hundreds of “Let’s go Tiger!” calls. But he was aware enough to slap fives with several young children and at least one young man confined to a wheelchair.

  • He was loose, joking with playing partners Justin Thomas and Fred Couples, and bouncing a ball on the face of his driver as he walked from the eighth green to the ninth tee.

  • He played well, outdriving Thomas on several holes and reaching the green of the par-5 eighth in two. His putts rolled true, even if he didn’t bend down to read greens beforehand.

  • Most notably, he spent considerable time putting to what, in most years, have been Sunday pin positions. That’s not the kind of thing one does when they’re on the last holes of a casual walk around the course.

This time last year, Woods was in seclusion, healing and rehabilitating out of public view from an accident so devastating that he nearly lost a leg. Orthopedic specialists at the time said it could be months, if not years, before Woods was able to even walk normally, much less play golf at an elite level again.

Woods was a social media specter; Golf Twitter dissected video of him walking with a limp or swinging a club like Biblical scholars searching for hidden meanings.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 04: Tiger Woods of the United States walks to the first tee during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 04, 2022 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods walks to the first tee during a practice round prior to the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 04, 2022 in Augusta, Georgia. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images) (Andrew Redington via Getty Images)

The golf world moved on without him. Phil Mickelson surprised the world by winning another major, then — somewhat less surprisingly — torched his reputation while trying to pick a fight with the PGA Tour. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau started and, apparently, ended what still seems like a made-for-TV feud. Jon Rahm seized the title of finest player in the world, and the United States flat-out bullied Europe right off the Ryder Cup stage.

Through it all, Woods watched, occasionally commented and worked. Worked hard, worked harder than anybody who already has 15 majors and nothing left to prove should ever work. And in December, the golf world got the first look at the fruits of all that labor: a second-place finish with son Charlie at the PNC Championship. Normally a cheery little hit-and-giggle event, Woods treated it with all the solemnity of a major, reveling in the chance to play with his son but still doing all he could to bring home yet another title. Team Woods came up just short against Team Daly, but the message was clear: Woods wasn’t done.

Astute observers of the Masters website caught when Mickelson joined the “former champions not playing” list, a shock in itself. But they also noted that Woods was still listed among the players in the 2022 event. Surely he just hadn’t gotten around to notifying Augusta National he wouldn’t be playing, right? Right … ?

Then last week, Twitter sleuths tracked a jet registered to Woods, noting that the flight plan originated near Jupiter, Florida, and ended near Augusta, Georgia. Even at Augusta, secrets this large are tough to keep, and news leaked out that Woods, Charlie and Thomas played the course, obviously a preamble to a potential return.

Sunday morning, Woods fueled speculation by noting that he was still planning to play, pending the outcome of two rounds Sunday and Monday afternoon. The Sunday round was closed to the public, but Woods’ Monday afternoon round drew numbers usually reserved for weekends when Woods is in the hunt.

They cheered Woods’ every drive, chip and putt. They gave him standing ovations as he walked by. They shouted “get in the hole,” of course, but just this once, even that wasn’t too terribly annoying. All the while, Woods walked with a delicate step, stretching during calm periods and clearly not overexerting himself.

Granted, Woods could wake up tomorrow morning with a spine that feels like fusilli pasta and he could decide that 36 or 72 holes of Augusta National would be more of a setback than a triumph. Barring that, though, everything appears on track for Woods to make a remarkable return, no matter whether he plays the weekend or not.

As Woods walked off the first green toward the second tee, one course marshal looked at the few remaining patrons down along the first fairway. “It’s getting ready to get real quiet here for the rest of the afternoon,” he said, laughing.

And if Woods returns to the Masters, it’s going to get real loud for the rest of the week.