AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first time Tiger Woods came to Augusta National Golf Club, he arrived in the middle of the night. At the club’s front gate, he had trouble making out all of the beauty in front of him.
“Magnolia Lane, you could barely see it,” Woods said Tuesday of his maiden Masters in 1995. It was one of the last times Woods would come to the Masters unnoticed.
Starting Thursday, Woods will make his 15th start in the Masters, and it is nearly impossible to mention one without the other. Woods’s largest footprints in golf have been left in the soil at Augusta National — as an amateur making the cut in his first appearance, a rookie winning by 12 shots two years later, and a legend winning the fourth leg of the Tiger Slam in 2001.
Coming off an 8 1/2-month layoff after his knee surgery and three PGA Tour events, including his high-voltage win at Bay Hill two Sundays ago, Woods has returned to the site of all of those memories, intent on making more. No longer the wiry college freshman who drove to Augusta after finishing a golf tournament in Atlanta, Woods is in search of a fifth green jacket and his first since 2005.
“It is amazing over the years that I’ve been here, just the feelings that you get when you come [back],” Woods said.
While many of Woods’s peers were battling the high winds and tough conditions at last week’s Shell Houston Open, he was in Orlando preparing for the major championship that sets the tone for the season and his season. With Hank Haney watching him work, Woods went through his golf bag, fine-tuning his game for the four-day Augusta trek.
The Masters is where the public expects so much from Woods, but never more than Woods expects from himself. His 12-shot victory over Tom Kite in 1997 changed the sport forever, breathing new possibilities into golf. Maybe a golfer could catch Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional majors. Maybe a golfer could win the Grand Slam.
A year ago, Woods said winning the Grand Slam was “easily within reason.” On Tuesday, he did not back down from that statement.
“Well, I know I can do it — I’ve done it,” Woods said of his four straight majors from 2000-2001. “It’s hard for me to sit here and tell you that it can’t be done, because I’ve done it before. It’s just a matter of winning the right four at the right time. So hopefully it will start this week for me.”
If there were questions about Woods’s comeback from knee surgery, the answers came in a barrage of golf shots at Bay Hill. Trailing by five shots going into the final round, he chased down Sean O’Hair and then broke his heart on the 18th green, rolling in a 16-foot putt amid flashing cameras.
“You have to believe in yourself if you are going to make those putts,” Woods said. “I was just trying to get the speed and the line correct, and make sure I released the blade. I just kept telling myself that. It does not change just because it’s the last hole of a tournament versus the first hole of a tournament.”
Making that putt, an outcome that was stirring even if it seemed preordained, told Woods something else. He was ready to get back into contention and win.
“I really wanted to feel the rush again on the back nine,” he said. “I was not in it at Doral; I was on the periphery. I played my way into a backdoor Top 10, so I was not really in it. This past week at Bay Hill was great, to feel that, and just to see how my body would react again.”
The 18th hole at Bay Hill asked Woods all the requisite questions. Can you find the fairway with your tee shot, hit the green over water, and drill the putt? He answered yes, yes and yes.
“It’s been awhile, and a lot of uncertainty over the months upon months of rehab, and it felt great to hit shots,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve been missing.”
What’s also been missing is a green jacket, won by Woods just once since 2002. Asked what has kept him from victory at the Masters in recent years, Woods acknowledged that it was his putting.
Before winning Bay Hill, Woods went back to some putting basics first taught by his late father, Earl. Woods also said Tuesday that, while convalescing during his knee injury, he watched highlights of his 1997 Masters win.
It was then that Woods’s legend was born, two years after arriving that night at Augusta National, the place where he has often left competitors in the dust.