Last week in Augusta, Tiger Woods played not just the first tournament of the rest of his life but also the most important tournament of his life, period.
In a vacuum the results look south of ordinary. Rounds of 73, 69, 68 and 73 left him 13 shots behind Jordan Spieth. The 21-year-old winner was, Woods noted drily, “still in diapers” when Woods, now 39, won his first Masters, in 1997. You may reasonably wonder, How could the 2015 Masters be more important for a 14-time major champion than his Hello, World pro debut in ’96? Or his play in the 2000 British Open, when he was trying to complete the career Grand Slam on his first chance and did it—at the Old Course?
To answer that question, we return to one of the most incisive things Tiger Woods has ever said in public: at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 2010, in a clubhouse ballroom, with CNN and Golf Channel covering the occasion live. On that February day Woods said, “I once heard—and I believe it is true—that it’s not what you achieve in life that matters, it is what you overcome.”
Well, on that basis, last week was monster-truck big. Professionally, Woods was in a spot where he never had more to overcome. After he had not played competitive golf for more than two months as he tried to resurrect his short game, the golf world wondered, What would be the state of Tiger’s head, and future, if he came to Augusta and picked up where he left off, duffing various little straightforward greenside shots? What would he say in his pretournament press conference to set up our expectations? And when showtime came, how would he handle Augusta’s nasty pitching and chipping demands?
Woods knows golf. He knows what Big Jack did and when he did it. (Eighteen majors, 15 of them secured before he turned 40.) He knows that the driving yips ended the career of Ian Baker-Finch and that the putting yips ended the career of Ben Hogan. Woods’s future was on the line. Pride—No. 7 on your Deadly Sins list—is a driving force in every world-class athlete. Tiger’s pride is outsized. What would he do if he came to Augusta and chipped and pitched his golf ball as he did in Phoenix and San Diego and, late last year, at his own event at Isleworth? His play in those events was positively gruesome. Men who had spent years trying to beat him felt sorry for him. “As competitive as we are, we don’t want to see anyone suffer like that,” Ernie Els said in San Diego. Well, if Woods continued down that path, what would he do with the rest of his life? Punters used to bet Tiger to win. Now the bet had become whether he would make the cut.
On Feb. 11, Woods posted a cryptic statement on his website that said, “My play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf. Like I’ve said, I enter a tournament to compete at the highest level, and when I think I’m ready, I’ll be back.” A month later he announced he would not play at Bay Hill, in a tournament he has won eight times. Yet when he entered the press building on the Tuesday before the Masters, Woods looked like a new man. He’s an extraordinary actor—you never know what he’s really thinking—but he appeared slender and flexible, he smiled easily and he answered questions with humor and patience. Asked what he did to get back to Augusta, Woods said, “I worked my ass off.” He talked about his short-game woes in the past tense, almost as if they were history. (“It came back pretty quick.”) In truth, he really could not know, not until he was playing with a TV camera pointed at him and a pencil in his pocket. But the session was Woods at his most likable. Really, a different Tiger Woods: open and relaxed and a pleasure to listen to. He talked about “rocking out” while listening to hip-hop on earphones during practice sessions. He talked about wanting his daughter, Sam, 7, and his son, Charlie, 6, to see him win. He talked about his motivation: “Winning,” he said. “I like it.”
The massive crowds that followed Woods on Thursday afternoon weren’t there to see him win his fifth green jacket. One of Tiger’s pet phrases is “baby steps,” the incremental improvements one needs to improve at something, at anything. Even Woods wasn’t really talking about winning. He was talking about competing at the highest level.
And then came his first chip shot in the first round of the rest of his life, on a course where he’d hit one of the most famous chip shots in golf history, holing out from over the 16th green in the last round of the 2005 Masters. (Has it really been a decade since his last win at Augusta?) Who couldn’t be nervous for him on the 3rd hole of the first round, when he faced an everyday uphill chip shot from about 10 feet off the green? He didn’t use any of the bailout clubs he had employed on the West Coast, namely putter and 4-iron. He used a wedge, and the chip was fine. Five holes later he hit a better chip. On Friday he turned a possible 73 or 74 into a 69 with superior chipping, including two beauties in Amen Corner. It was something like vintage Tiger. Then there was his Saturday round, an all-systems-go 68 that was pretty much vintage Woods. It was exciting. If you don’t find watching Tiger Woods play golf at a high level absolutely enthralling, you might need a new hobby.
There were other choice moments. In the Saturday round you could hear caddie Joe LaCava encouraging Woods to be more aggressive with his 7-iron third shot into 13 than Woods had planned to be. In his prime, Woods had a deeply assertive caddie in Steve Williams, and maybe that exchange was a sign that LaCava can be that kind of guy. Woods stuffed the shot to 15 feet, holed the putt for birdie and unleashed a fist pump. More vintage Tiger.
As he walked from the 9th green to the 10th tee on Friday, a middle-aged woman said, “Tiger, thank you for all you do!” And Tiger looked the woman in the eye and said, “Thank you, ma’am.” He doesn’t do that every day. On Saturday he signed a flag for a kid in a Puma hat and said, “I’ll probably be an honorary starter here when you’re playing in the tournament.” Charming! His Saturday-night session on the driving range was vintage Woods, and every strike was exhilarating. He hit nothing but drivers and 3-woods, standing with his swing coach, Chris Como. He hit fades, draws on command. It was essentially one flush shot after another.
But the Augusta National driving range is about 400 yards wide, and the fairways on the course are not even one-tenth that. On Sunday, Woods was back to his recent old self, driving it wildly offline from the very start. He yanked his opening tee shot into the 9th fairway; all told he hit only two of 14 fairways. He missed short putts on 2, 3 and 4, and nothing has held him back in recent years like his short putting. He appeared to hurt his right wrist when playing his second shot from the right rough on number 9. In an interview with Bill Macatee of CBS after the round he said, “A bone kind of popped out and the joint kind of went out of place, but I put it back in.”
“Really?” Macatee said.
“Yeah,” Woods replied.
“Wow,” Macatee said. “O.K.”
Woods said he doesn’t know when he will play again, that he needs to go back to the “drawing board” and solve his driving game. If he is ever going to get a 15th major, he has to figure out how to drive it on the course as he did on Saturday night on the Augusta practice tee. But here’s the good news for Woods. At Augusta there was not even a hint of the chipping struggles. That’s good, because if you can’t chip, you really can’t play. Tiger Woods will play in the U.S. Open. At least we know that, and he does too.