A Monday like no other with Tiger Woods back at Augusta

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports

AUGUSTA, Ga. – If the famed hills of Augusta National were ever to be flattened, it would have occurred Monday afternoon when one Eldrick “Tiger” Woods dared to step outside and practice some golf.

“Practice” being the operative word.

Woods went 10 minutes at the driving range, maybe 10 more chipping from some sand and then about the same putting. He then strolled to the first tee for a casual 9-holes with Freddy Couples and Justin Thomas.

At each stop the crowds reached 10 deep of craning necks and held aloft cameras (allowed during practice rounds). Almost no one could see much of anything. It didn’t matter. When Tiger moved, a thundering herd of fans followed to wherever he headed next, eventually off onto the course to watch their old hero play this old course once again.

His tee shot was a mob scene. There was almost no one else watching anyone else.

“Can you even see him?” one guy standing deep in the pack asked his buddy, who just shrugged in response.

Tiger Mania has gripped the Masters in a way that may make even his breakout 1997 victory, his 2001 Tiger Slam triumph and his 2010 return from personal scandal seem quaint. At 42, Woods appears healthy for the first time in years. He even came in second in a tournament last month. After years of being derailed with injuries, he’s a contender again.

This is the most anticipated Masters in a long time and while the storylines are everywhere, Woods is the main event. Part nostalgia, part hope, no one wants to miss a single bit of it.

“I think when it comes to Tiger and Tiger Mania, everyone wants to see him win and play the way he did before,” said Jason Day. “Everyone’s kind of chomping at the bit.”

“It’s great for the game of golf,” Bubba Watson said. “It is just going to help more people love the game of golf.”

This is just the start.

If Monday’s practice round was festive and enthusiastic, Thursday’s competition should be pandemonium. And who knows what a Sunday in contention might bring, other than massive television ratings. His runner-up performance in March’s Valspar Championship drew the largest non-major golf ratings in half a decade. A similar or better result here would be enormous.

“He’s a guy who has that charisma,” said José María Olazábal, a two-time Masters Champion.

No one knew if this was even possible again. Woods won his first major here in 1997, finishing with an iconic bear hug of his father, Earl, just off the 18th green. He finished 18-under and ushered in a new era of golf. His victory in 2001 gave him a fourth consecutive major, meaning he held all four titles at once. He repeated in 2002, then won again in 2005.

His 14 major championships are second to Jack Nicklaus’ record 18. For years it looked like Woods beat that, but injuries and personal foibles upended his game. Even so, Augusta was still his personal playground. Along with the four titles, he has seven other top-five finishes. If he didn’t win, he lurked in his Sunday afternoon red. The course set up for him.

Three of the last four years though, he’s arrived solely for the annual Tuesday night champion’s dinner before jetting out of town. The other year, 2015, he finished 17th. His recurring back injury left many to assume Woods would fade too soon and too young into an ambassador’s role, missing cuts before eventually hitting ceremonial tee shots.

It was sad. Now, suddenly, he’s back.

The massive gallery following Tiger Woods reacts as he chips in for an eagle on the second hole during practice for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Monday, April 2, 2018, in Augusta, Ga. (AP)
The massive gallery following Tiger Woods reacts as he chips in for an eagle on the second hole during practice for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, Monday, April 2, 2018, in Augusta, Ga. (AP)

“I’m looking forward to [Augusta],” he said last month after competing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida. “I miss playing there. I’ve been there for the dinner and as great as that is, it’s frustrating knowing that I’m, I would have to say, young enough to play the event where some of the other champions are not. I just have not been able to physically do it.”

Woods’ presence has changed the run-up to the event. Reigning champion Sergio Garcia is an afterthought. Same with Jason Day or top-ranked Dustin Johnson. Two-time champion Bubba Watson, who has two PGA victories this season, is mostly ignored. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, even Phil Mickelson are just guys.

None of them attracted anything close to the crowd Tiger did on Monday. None of them seemed to care.

“Tiger earned the attention,” Rickie Fowler said.

“I think everyone’s kind of solely focused on Tiger and what he’s going to do here and seeing if he can get to No. 15,” Day said. “That’s fine with me. I can just kind of focus on what I need to do.”

“I mean, Tiger, I hope everybody gives him attention and I just kind of sneak through the back nine roars and somehow pull out a victory,” Watson said.

Meanwhile, Woods was grinding through some extra looks at Augusta National. He joked with Couples. He took extra putts. He prepared. He played twice here last week too. He knows the place, knows the tricks and knows this feeling too.

The center of attention, the main event, the people’s choice for the championship.

Tiger Woods played golf at Augusta National on Monday and there may never have been a Monday like it in the history of the event – fans stomping up and down hills and pushing up against ropes in the hope of getting a glimpse at something they weren’t sure they might ever see again.

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