AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods strode onto the practice range at Augusta National Golf Club a little before 10 a.m. Decked out in black — shoes, pants, shirt and hat — he was hardly playing the part of a villain. Not at this sacred place, not with the way he's playing and definitely not with the way the golf world wants him back.
He's not the ceremonial golfer much of the world thought he was destined to become after his series of mishaps — the chip yips, the surgeries, the DUI — but this Tiger Woods can actually play the game like he's supposed to, like we're used to. The re-boot in the Bahamas wasn't that long ago. How time flies when Tiger Woods is fist-pumping.
Masters Thursday is a worldwide golf holiday, but a Masters Thursday with Woods in the field is an extravaganza. He's bumped other stars like Rory and DJ and JT down the front page. Thomas, for one, struggled to describe the prospect of facing a revamped Woods this week.
"Anybody that played against him says that you don’t want (to face peak Tiger); so I don't know — I can't win," he said. "If I say I want to play against him, I can't beat him, and then if I say that I don't want to play against him, they say that I'm backing down from a challenge. So I don't really know what to say."
Woods hasn't played a major since he finished T17 here in 2015 and hasn't contended in a major since he tied for sixth at the 2013 Open at Murfield. But the vibe is different today. This crowd thinks Tiger can win. The media thinks Woods can win, and Woods, who had to wonder if he would ever contend at a tournament again, thinks he can win.
Tiger doubled down earlier this week. His website posted a 611-word blog on Woods's return to the Masters, in which he called himself "a walking miracle." The piece ended with a simple quote:
"I'm just there to win."
At 10:27 a.m., Woods left the practice area. So did most of the gallery. Woods hopped in a cart while the patrons walked back through the Masters' Disney World-esque village, settling along the first tee and fairway. At 10:30 Woods emerged from near the clubhouse and made his way to the putting green, and seven minutes later he made the short walk through a narrow passage that split the sea of patrons and led to the first tee box. Fans encouraged him as he walked by, but Woods didn't look at anyone, nor smile. Months ago at the Bahamas he grinned and made eye contact and said thank you. But this isn't the Hero World Challenge.
Woods was announced to the swelling crowd, and in an instant every khaki-clad patron grew two inches taller, rising to their toes to get the best view they could.
"Look at all of these people here for Tiger," said one patron, turning his head on a swivel. "It's crazy."
Phones would usually be raised at that moment, ready to snap photos, but no one dared break decorum and sneak their device into Augusta National. They will watch Tiger the old fashioned way. Snapchat be damned.
Woods bent down, stabbed his tee into the ground and took a mighty swing.
Whack! The ball traveled 282 yards and settled in the pine straw.
Tiger Woods strode down the fairway. A massive gallery followed.