Tiger Woods is gunning for a record-equalling sixth Green Jacket in what would be the most miraculous resurgence of a career studded with epic comebacks.
Woods last played 17 months ago, in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Masters.
His lower right leg is knit together with the ‘hardware’ of stabilising rods and screws inserted after he suffered devastating injuries in a February 2021 single-car crash.
Woods spent three months in a hospital bed, more time in a wheelchair before graduating to crutches, and now thinks he cannot only walk the rolling, 7,510-yard Augusta National course for four rounds, but also give himself a chance to match Jack Nicklaus’ record of six Masters titles.
“I do,” Woods said when asked outright if he thought he could win.
Through years of injury and comebacks, Woods has always said he wouldn’t enter a tournament he didn’t think he could win.
He won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg and torn knee ligament. It would be more than a decade, and five back surgeries later, before he won his next Major title at the 2019 Masters, taking his career tally to 15.
“You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I’m up for,” Woods said.
“I don’t have to worry about ball-striking or the game of golf, it’s actually just the hills out here. That’s going to be the challenge, it’s going to be the challenge of a major marathon.”
Defending champion Hideki Matsuyama is in a race for fitness. Rory McIlroy is still chasing the Masters title that would complete his career Grand Slam.
Scottie Scheffler arrives at the first Major of the year as the newly minted world No 1. But Spain’s second-ranked Jon Rahm is one of five players who could push Scheffler from his perch.
The others are Open champion Collin Morikawa, US PGA FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay, rising Norwegian star Viktor Hovland and Aussie Cameron Smith – who shot four rounds in the 60s in 2020 in a runner-up finish to Dustin Johnson at Augusta.
The contenders have been greeted this year by significant changes to several holes at the iconic Georgia course.
But every story pales in comparison to that of Woods and his bid to claim another Masters title, 25 years after his first in 1997 launched a new era in golf.
From the moment Woods played a practice round at Augusta National last week, speculation has been rampant.
Fans and pundits have scrutinised his every move: his swing, his demeanour, his gait, even his shoes – which are not those of long-time sponsor Nike but of rival brand FootJoy, which Woods said provide the support he now requires.
Nike, he was quick to add, is working to create a product that will suit his new needs.
Woods’ tweet on Sunday that it would be a “game-time decision” as to whether he played only served to fire up fans.
Those lucky enough to have practice-round tickets have flocked to watch him.
“It was good to feel the energy again,” Woods said.
“Really cool,” Woods’ friend Justin Thomas said of the huge crowds that followed their practice round.
“I think something like that is going to just help him get through the week and being able to feed off that energy, use the adrenaline. It’s definitely going to be helpful.”
Woods’ final preparations on Wednesday could be impacted by the storms that rolled in on Tuesday.
But the forecast for the tournament days is largely fine, and the painstakingly maintained Augusta National course will no doubt provide a perfect stage for whatever Woods drama unfolds.
“I think the fact that I was able to get myself here to this point is a success,” Woods said. “Now everything is focused on how do I get myself into the position where I’m on that back nine on Sunday with a chance.”
© Agence France-Presse