AUGUSTA, Ga. – They put Humpty Dumpty back together.
It took all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, but Tiger Woods played four rounds this week at Augusta National.
“Humpty Dumpty is glued and hopefully good enough,” he cracked to Golf Channel on the eve of the tournament.
Woods shot a pair of 78s over the weekend, his highest score in the Masters, limping to the finish line, but smiling to the end.
Nearly 14 months after being involved in a gruesome, high-speed single-vehicle accident, Woods did the unthinkable. He thanked his surgeons, his physios and physical therapists, his team as he collectively called them. It was so remarkable when he flew to Augusta to play 18 holes (plus the par-3 course) with son Charlie and test his surgically repaired leg that he nearly broke the Internet.
Then he termed himself a ‘game-time decision,’ but there he was on Monday of tournament week to play a practice round with pals Fred Couples and Justin Thomas. Seemingly every patron with a badge on the grounds at Augusta National had to see it for themselves. They were jammed 10 deep, children on the shoulders of parents, and adults craning their necks to see, if they were lucky, the top of his backswing. It was real and it was spectacular.
How much pain he’s endured, we’ll never know for sure.
“The people who are close to me understand. They’ve seen it,” Woods said. “Some of the players who are close to me have seen it and have seen some of the pictures and the things that I have had to endure. They appreciate it probably more than anyone else because they know what it takes to do this out here at this level.”
Tiger Woods lines up his putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 2022 Masters Tournament. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
Thomas, one of the few to see behind the curtain, was asked to describe his reaction to seeing Tiger’s leg. “Horrified,” Thomas said.
And yet, Tiger opened with 71 in the first round.
“Even a month ago I didn’t know if I could pull this off,” Woods said.
On Friday, when he opened with four bogeys in the first five holes, a round in the 80s felt like a distinct possibility. But it wasn’t time to fuel Air Tiger for the flight back to Florida. Just when you thought the Tiger Woods story couldn’t get more epic, he made the cut at the Masters 14 months after almost losing a leg.
“I fight each and every day,” he said on Saturday. “Each and every day is a challenge. Each and every day presents its own different challenges for all of us. I wake up and start the fight all over again.”
In the third round, a wintry chill provided another obstacle for Woods to overcome. His limp became more pronounced as the day went along and by the time he walked off from his press conference he winced in pain and didn’t even try to disguise it. Yet his ball striking remained strong; it was his putter that showed rust as he took four 3-putts and a 4 putt. He ranked 51st of 52 players in the field in total putts on Saturday with 36.
“I just could not get a feel for getting comfortable with the ball. Posture, feel, my right hand, my release,” he said. “I just couldn’t find it.”
Given that Woods, who won his first of 15 majors here 25 years ago, said he came here with the goal to win a sixth Green Jacket, you almost wanted him to withdraw and save going through all the pre- and post-round rituals necessary to play. “Hopping in those ice baths, doing those a number of times a day, those do really suck, but it works,” he said.
Walking Augusta National is the equivalent of setting a StairMaster on a vertical setting of 11. Why do it? Why endure it again? Was it worth it, he was asked.
“This tournament has meant so much to me and my family,” he explained.
A group of friends from Palm City, Florida, are dressed in red while following Tiger Woods during the final round of the 2022 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Adam Cairns-Augusta Chronicle/USA TODAY Sports)
Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw may have explained it even better than Tiger could have, saying simply, “He’s doing what he loves.”
On Sunday, Tiger made just one birdie – at the second – hit a pitch left handed at 13 and made a double at 17 en route to a 72-hole total of 13-over 301. But the final tally was immaterial. He already won just by making it to the starting line. He alternated between using his driver and putter as a cane of sorts near the end of his weekend rounds. When asked how much pain he was in, he smiled wanly and said, “Uh-huh.” Earlier in the week, Woods compared his team that worked on his body between rounds to a NASCAR pit crew.
“I go ahead and break it out there, they go ahead and repair it at night,” he said. “I’m good at breaking it. They’re good at fixing it.”
During an explanation of what changes to his swing he’s had to make to compensate for his myriad injuries, Woods gave his most revealing answer as to the challenges he faces in this latest comeback:
“The ankle is not going to move. I got rods and plates and pins and screws and a bunch of different things in there. It’s never going to move like it used to,” he said. “The more important thing is the ankle is always going to be an issue, but more importantly, if I play golf ballistically, it’s going to be the back. It’s fused. So it’s the levels above and below that are going to take the brunt of it.
“If I can’t push off, I can’t rotate as well, and fortunately, I’m still generating enough speed. My ball speed is at 175-ish when I hit it good, so that puts shearing on the back. I already had back issues going into this, and now this kind of just compounds it a little bit.”
On Sunday, Charlie and daughter Sam were in his gallery along with mom, Kultida, and his girlfriend, Erica Herman. Nike’s founder Phil Knight wore red and black, too. Former U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, who missed the cut, and amateur Aaron Jarvis, the Latin American Amateur champion, were among the throngs of patrons who cheered Tiger on as if he were shooting 68 not 78.
“I think it was a positive, and I’ve got some work to do and looking forward to it,” Woods summarized of the week that was, during which he had us believing in the impossible again. That’s what Tiger does. Bubba Watson called it “the inspiration of Tiger.”
“Watching him walk, gosh, I cry on a paper cut,” Watson said. “For him to be able to walk and make the cut is pretty spectacular.”
If Tiger can play again at the highest level and not just in ‘hit-n-giggles,’ something that seemed far-fetched when he was lying in a hospital bed for months, then how far-fetched is it to believe that he can win an 83rd title or –gasp – another major.
“I’ve seen enough this week that we should be really excited about the summer ahead,” Golf Channel analyst Paul McGinley said. “We’ve got three major championships coming up and you can bet your bottom dollar that he’ll be competitive in at least one of them.”
Next up is the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in May. Tiger was non-committal about teeing it up in Tulsa, where he won in 2007, but he said he would be at the 150th British Open at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Does he need rest or reps? Only time will tell but if we learned anything this week it is that we haven’t heard the last from Tiger, the golfer.
“We’re excited about the prospects of the future, about training, about getting into that gym and doing some other stuff to get my leg stronger, which we haven’t been able to do because it needed more time to heal,” he said. “I think it needs a couple more days to heal after this, but we’ll get back after it, and we’ll get into it.”
The glue has dried and Tiger is ready to climb back atop the wall.