By WILL GRAVES | ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tiger Woods’ 91st competitive round at the Masters will start like all the rest. Shortly after 11 a.m. on Thursday, the five-time champion will stick his tee into the ground at Tea Olive, the name of the first hole at Augusta National, take a couple of practice swings and continue a familiar walk that began over a quarter-century ago.
It’s what happens when Woods stuffs his driver back into his bag that will determine whether his surgically rebuilt right leg — or the rest of the 46-year-old Hall of Famer for that matter — is ready for a test unlike any other he’s faced in his career.
The five-mile or so walk between the Georgia pines at Augusta National is 11,000-plus steps of up and down and up again. It requires hitting shots from uneven lies. Of digging into the pine straw when required. Of trying to peak over bunkers that can run so deep — as it does on the par-3 fourth hole — you need to jump if you’re going to see the flag.
No one other than Jack Nicklaus has navigated the sprawling course as well as Woods. No active player is as well-versed in the contours of every inch of perfectly manicured Bermuda grass.
That’s why Woods wasn’t complaining when he said on Tuesday “walking is the hard part.” He’s merely stating a fact. And he’s hardly the only one who knows how physically draining competing in the Masters can be.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange used to leave the tournament with shin splints. And Strange didn’t have to do it while working with a leg crammed with rods and plates metal detectors shudder when they see you coming around the corner.
“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.
At least in theory. He hasn’t played 18 holes at Augusta National on consecutive days since shredding his leg in a car accident in February 2021 that led doctors to consider amputation. Now he’s asking the same leg that anchored 15 major championships and a PGA Tour record-tying 82 victories to hold up for four rounds in the span of 81 or so hours.
That doesn’t even include the warm-up or recovery, routines that require far more time than they did when he fist-pumped his way to his first green jacket 25 years ago.
It’s asking a lot. Yes, it’s just walking. Only it’s no ordinary walk. And it’s no ordinary week. For Woods or anyone else.
“I think most of the stress that we have is probably more mental than physical,” said world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who at 25 was born less than a year before Woods captured his first Masters title.
The stress is no longer between Woods’ ears, but underneath his feet. The elevation changes are nearly constant from your opening shot. Down the hill to the first fairway, then back up toward the green. Down a hill again at No. 2. Rolling terrain on No. 3. An elevated tee at No. 4. Uphill nearly all the way at No. 7. Ditto No. 8. A climb to the turn at No. 9.
The back nine is a jumble. The 10th fairway could double as a ski slope. Another trek down the 11th into Amen Corner. The 12th and 13th offer a bit of a respite. Mounds and a slanted fairway on the 14th, where a flat lie is basically a myth. A gentle downhill to the 15th green. The 16th provides a respite, before the 17th tee begins one last climb back to the clubhouse.
Woods admits his mobility is so limited he ditched Nike cleats for FootJoys because it provided more comfort. He’s hoping the jolt of adrenaline fueled by the first capacity crowd to come to Augusta since his titanic victory in 2019 will help him get by.
Still, golf is golf. Throw in the crucible that is the Masters and Woods knows adversity is unavoidable. He stressed he wouldn’t come back just to be a field filler. That’s simply not his way. He’s not going to ask his leg to simply help him get around, but to stand on the 18th green late Sunday afternoon and have Hideki Matsuyama drape a sixth green jacket over his shoulders.
It sounds impossible. It very well may be impossible.
“When I decide to hang it up when I feel like I can’t win anymore, then that will be it,” he said. “But I feel like I can still do it, and I feel like I still have the hands to do it, the body’s moving good enough. I’ve been in worse situations and played and won tournaments.”
Yes and no. He won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines basically on one leg. Yet he was just 32 then. He’s closer to 60 now than that brilliant Father’s Day weekend in the sun back home in California.
The spirit remains willing. It has since the first time he ducked inside the ropes at Augusta as an amateur in 1995.
It’s the rest of him, particularly the right ankle that will have to bear the weight of so much — including internal and external expectations that come when your name happens to be Tiger Woods — that will determine whether this long walk will be spoiled.
“I don’t have to worry about the ball striking or the game of golf, it’s actually just the hills out here,” he said. “That’s going to be the challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge of a major marathon.”