Masters 2023: A diminished Tiger Woods gets up-close look at Viktor Hovland's brilliant opening round

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods had just parred the first hole of his first day here at the Masters. Not bad. He’d really piped the drive, too, a promising 289 yards uphill. If he could find his putter, who knows? Or so they murmured in the gallery.

Maybe more notably, he’d descended from the first tee box down a steep sweep of Georgia terrain and then up an even steeper one that constitutes the first fairway. It's a hike. He did it with only the slightest of hitches in his step.

Now he was standing on the second tee, having smacked his drive 307 yards into a trap. He suddenly eyed a bench and while playing partners Viktor Hovland and Xander Schauffele handled their business, Tiger took a seat.

Maybe he was already tired. Maybe he was saving himself. Maybe at 47 and with a right leg that he nearly lost in a 2021 car accident only to be saved via a lot of “hardware,” you take every opportunity to take a load off, even for a few beats.

None of this is new or surprising. Tiger Woods playing at all is something of a medical miracle. No one takes it for granted. It's why he had, by far, the largest gallery following him around.

They smoked cigars and risked sunburn and rooted for putts to fall. Mostly they craned their necks in what felt more like a crowded subway than an expansive golf course just to get a glimpse, just to say they experienced Tiger Woods playing golf in Augusta, even in diminished form.

Still, it’s jarring to see the guy who used to strut around the course and intimidate the field taking a seat, taking a breather four shots in.

Woods finished two over Thursday, but had a front row view of what it will take to compete here in the 87th Masters. Hovland, a 25-year-old from Norway via Oklahoma State, went 7-under and sits tied with Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka for first. Schauffele, a 29-year-old from San Diego, was 4-under.

They played brilliantly.

Tiger just played.

“Most of the guys are going low today,” Tiger said, more wistful than frustrated, like he knew the difference between what was and wasn’t reasonably possible. “This was the day to do it. Hopefully, tomorrow I'll be a little bit better, a little bit sharper, and kind of inch my way through it.”

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 06: Tiger Woods of the United States plays a shot from a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 06, 2023 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods plays a shot from a bunker on the 18th hole during the first round of the 2023 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

In the end he looked exhausted. The humid afternoon left him drenched in sweat. The leg remains the leg.

“Sore,” he said.

Does the pain come and go, or is it constant?


Woods has some work to do Friday to make the weekend cut. No matter what happens, it remains far more likely than not that he is back for the 2024 Masters. With that said, the chance that this could be his final competitive round here isn’t zero either.

There should be no minimizing just how miserable it can be to try to play this course while injured. Koepka went through a knee injury he calls not "anywhere near" Tiger's and yet beyond the pain, he found worrying about every downhill step and off-balance stance exhausting.

"Just feeling like you can't get around for the day ... it's frustrating," Koepka said. "I understand how painful it is and how mentally grueling it is."

There’s also the hopelessness, the acceptance that you are here to entertain, but despite being legendarily competitive, not really to compete. A year ago, returning was enough of a goal. Making the cut exceeded expectations.

How long can that be enough, essentially playing for the sake of playing, struggling for the sake of the struggle?

“I don't know how many more I have in me,” Tiger said earlier this week.

The fans will take what they can get. Same with these young players, who idolize him.

“[When I heard I was] paired with Tiger, my heart kind of went a little bit further up in the throat," said Hovland. "I just thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be exciting.’ Heart rate started going up … You've just got to embrace it. You can't be scared or anything like that. If you want to win this tournament, you can't be scared about playing with Tiger.”

Golf - The Masters - Augusta National Golf Club - Augusta, Georgia, U.S. - April 6, 2023 Norway's Viktor Hovland hits his tee shot on the 9th hole during the first round as Tiger Woods of the U.S. looks on REUTERS/Mike Segar
Norway's Viktor Hovland hits his tee shot on the 9th hole during the first round as Tiger Woods of the U.S. looks on. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Hovland didn’t look scared. He eagled No. 2 and then kept pushing forward with birdies on 6, 8, 9, 11 and 13. He repeatedly saved par when in trouble and avoided backing up.

That included 18, when he was able to overcome driving into a left side bunker. Woods, meanwhile, couldn’t deal with having to hit with one foot in and one foot out of the sand. Tiger was lucky it was his left leg he had pushdown on in the trap.

“Hop on the left leg is fine,” Woods said. “If I did it on the other one, not so fine.”

You can’t win the Masters on the first day, but with uncertain weather coming, you can certainly lose it.

“It's kind of easier to protect the score a little bit compared to if you're five, six, seven shots back,” Hovland said. “It’s really difficult to make up that much ground if this place is playing very difficult.”

Hovland sounded like someone who was here to win, Tiger like someone who was just here.

“Hopefully [I can] get myself back in this tournament,” he said.

Is that enough for him? Is that enough to endure whatever he went through?

He’ll be back Friday. So will the throngs and the roars and the hope that the cheers will be for the present, not just the past.