AUGUSTA, GA. - “Good luck out there, guys,” Tiger Woods says blankly to his playing partners Thursday at the Masters, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Bae Sang-Moon, as he strides to the first tee precisely at 10:35 a.m.
“Fore, please,” an Augusta National Golf Club official says, “on the tee, Tiger Woods.”
Woods puts his tee in the ground, backs off, takes a couple of rehearsal swings as he stares down the first fairway, steps up to the ball and swings. Thwack.
There’s dead silence from the crowd, 15 fans deep in some places.
Woods’s ball goes immediately left, a hook in golf parlance. Groans fill the air. “He snap-hooked that one,” someone says. A few minutes later, as the trio leaves the tee box, someone else says: “That was the worst drive I’ve ever seen.”
It’s not a good start for Woods.
The four-time Masters champion has put his personal troubles (infidelity revelations, divorce) and health issues (knee and Achilles heel injuries) behind him, and the new swing he has developed with Canadian instructor Sean Foley has finally matured.
Woods won a PGA Tour event two weeks ago, ending a 30-month official title drought on the tour, and he arrived in Augusta as the man to beat. Well, one of two or three anyway.
Woods makes nearly the same tee shot on the second hole, sending his ball into a hazard and costing him a penalty shot. But if these shots are ominous signs, they don’t hurt Woods on the scoresheet. He makes pars on both holes with brilliant recoveries, then rebounds on the third with a birdie to suddenly find himself on the first page of the leaderboard.
Where else would he be?
Woods, 36, has owned golf’s first major of the season over the past 18 years. He won the tournament in a runaway as a skinny 21-year-old in 1997, and has added three more titles to his collection since.
The Masters and its fans, or “patrons” as they’re called at Augusta National, revere their past champions and Woods is no exception, despite his transgressions.
Although Augusta National chairman Billy Payne famously dressed Woods down when he emerged from his post-scandal hiding in 2010 to enter the Masters, there doesn’t seem to be any scorn or hostility on the grounds this year.
If anything, a mood of forgiveness prevails. His troubles seem part of a distant past. There’s also a sense of anticipation.
The patrons following Woods, especially in the early going, seem as nervous as the golfer (a snap-hook is often a sign of anxiety) at the outset and they didn’t exhale until Woods dropped his birdie putt on the third hole.
Overall, they’re pulling for Woods to win. A victory would likely reignite Tigermania. TV ratings have already been rising over the past several months as his play improved and he got into contention more often during the final rounds of tournaments. A win would make a clear statement that he’s back and render his scandal as part of another era.
Drawing fan admiration
Win Johnson waited 2 1/2 hours in the hot sun just to get Woods’s autograph.
It was a big gamble because Woods has never been much for mingling with the crowds that come to see him play.
But the 15-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., got lucky. Standing in a fenced-off area near Augusta National’s magnificent new practice range, Win came face to face with his golf hero.
Win already had the signatures of other players, but it was Woods’s he wanted most on his yellow nylon Masters flag.
Woods stopped by the fence as he was exiting the range, grabbed Win’s flag and signed his name right in the centre of the Augusta National’s iconic logo, which features an outline of the United States and a flagstick coming out of Georgia.
There wasn’t much eye contact or chatter from Woods as he went down the line of autograph seekers, all of whom were children or teens, but Win couldn’t have been happier, high-fiving some of the others around him and holding the flag up as his father, Mike, snapped a few pictures.