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Augusta dark horse picks
The Tour Confidential team looks at who might come out of the proverbial woodwork and take this year's Masters.
By Michael Bamberger
Tuesday, April 03, 2018

AUGUSTA, Ga. — There are always more questions than bodies. If you're lucky, you might get in one question at a pre-Masters Tiger Woods press conference. That's been the case since his first one, in 1995, and it was only more true today, as Woods engaged in this bit of Masters theater for the first time since 2015. I got to the 1 p.m. Wednesday press conference early, took a front-row seat, and was relieved to see that the moderator was Rob Johnston, a courtly Southerner and longtime Augusta National member with whom I have a good rapport. I actually wrote out my question for Tiger ahead of time:  

If this is too personal, I totally understand. That night, from Memorial Day weekend, had to be awful for you and your family — and I know it was upsetting for the many people who care about you. But did something good come out of that night?  

People — fans, reporters, Tour players — have real emotion attached to this unexpected, post-surgery, post-arrest comeback trail that Woods is apparently on. I became intensely drawn into it after attending the three Florida events Tiger played in February and March: Honda (12th), Tampa (second, by shot), Bay Hill (5th). Based on his dismal play — and driving — in two events in California, I didn't see it coming. At all. But it wasn't just his scores that left me so impressed, or the speed of his swing with his surgically-repaired body. It was him. I felt like I was seeing Tiger in a way I never had before. More vulnerable. More honest. More appreciative.  

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It was different things in the different events. After the Honda, where he hit two shots in the water and took himself out of any remote chance he had to win, he was asked about his 21-year-old playing partner, Sam Burns. Woods said: "He played beautifully. Top-10 is big for him because it gets him into Tampa, next official start, full-field event. He's trying to build momentum and build his exempt status. Today and this week was a big step for him." In nearly 23 years of covering Woods, I had never heard him speak about another player with such interest and understanding. It was as if he knew what it was to be Burns.  

At Tampa, the most impressive thing was that he came to the 18th hole on Sunday needing a birdie to force a playoff with Paul Casey, leading in the house. He played a cautious 260-yard tee shot that left him 185 yards from the hole. He was way too far back but later admitted that he didn't have the confidence to hit driver there. He two-putted from 35 feet for a par. I can't recall Woods ever admitting to a golfing insecurity like that. It was refreshing.  

Bay Hill was the most remarkable of the three. Again, his chances of winning were limited, but he was tied for the lead briefly on Sunday afternoon before hitting a tee shot out of bounds on 16 (driver). He followed a bogey there with a bogey on 17. But he came in and talked to a small group of reporters with not just patience, but with a level of effort and warmth I had seldom seen before. He actually looked exhilarated, and the tiredness of I have seen in his eyes scores of times at the end of 72 holes was not there. He looked so alive, so fit, so handsome.  

Getty Images

So, really and truly, I'd like to know what gives. I give anybody I'm writing about a wide, wide berth on their private lives, no matter how famous they might be. In the case of Woods, he can share or not — but he should have the chance. I wish I could convince his agent, Mark Steinberg, that, speaking for myself and maybe for others, I would crave the chance to listen empathetically to Tiger talking about his interior life. So far, getting on 20 years, it's been futile, but I plan to keep trying.  

I know from my reporting, notebook in hand and otherwise, that many people are just excited to see a healthy Tiger playing good golf again and cannot wait to see what he does over the course of this week at Augusta. They are not thinking at all about the May 29 mug shot after his roadside arrest in a nearly comatose drug-induced state. To me, that is the subtext for everything that will happen here. That is the subtext for my surprise by my response to him — not just his results, but the actual man — in those three Florida tournaments.  

Tiger wore a white shirt with a so-called blade collar, a distant cousin to the glorified white Munsingwear T-shirt Bob Goalby wore on Sunday at the 1968 Masters. I thought he seemed nervous and stilted — nothing like he was at Bay Hill — but nobody at Augusta National is ever really at ease.  

Woods took questions on the state of his back, on what it would be like to putt on bent greens for the first time in several years, on attending Champions dinners in 2015 and '16 without playing in the tournament. Christine Brennan of USA Today posed this question:  

"It's been eight years since we all were talking about your personal life and you were criticized by a lot of us, certainly by me, by Billy Payne and others. I'm wondering now when you look at the political climate and where we are as a country, if that was harsh or unfair, that maybe you were treated too harshly?"  

To which Woods said, "Yeah…I'm really excited to play the Masters this week."  

The next reporter asked Woods about his history of returning to competition from other surgeries.  

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Johnston began the proceedings with this welcome: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and what has been truly a highly anticipated return to the Masters, we are greatly pleased to welcome to the press building our four‑time Masters champion, Mr. Tiger Woods." He was beaming.  

Over the next 45 minutes, Woods answered about 27 questions, including this one at the end from a reporter with what sounded like a British accent who asked another version of the question I had hoped to ask.  

"You wrote recently that you think you've had a second lease on life, you are now a walking miracle," the reporter asked. "I wonder if you could expand on that and just give us an idea of how dark a place you were in and how far you've had to climb."  

"Well, it's been a tough road," Woods said. From there, he could go anywhere.  

"I've described a little bit of it, the pain of just sitting there and the amount of times that I've fallen because my leg didn't work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of times. Those are some really dark, dark times.  

"The reason why I say I'm a walking miracle is I don't know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it.  That's incredible.  Some guys have said, ‘Yeah, I need to fuse my back so I can hit it harder.' No, you don't want to go through that.  

"But that's why I say that. It's a miracle. I went from a person who really had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, anything, anything, to now swinging the club you saw it at 129 [miles per hour], on one Trackman. That's a miracle, isn't it?"  

To him, I suppose it is. Johnston said, "Tiger, we wish you every success this week." Soon after, Rory McIlroy was sitting in the seat Tiger had warmed up.  

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.

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