AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even during dress rehearsals, Tiger Woods can move the earth at Augusta National like nobody else. He spent his Masters practice time wowing his fellow pros with his ability to hit the long ball and to fire darts at the flags, and reminding everyone just how much the game still desperately needs him.
Thousands upon thousands of fans followed his every move Monday and Wednesday, with the heavy Tuesday rains interrupting the love fest, and it all made for a remarkable and frightful scene at the same time.
Remarkable, of course, because Woods could have been killed when he wrecked his SUV south of Los Angeles not even 14 months ago, and could have lost his right leg to amputation because of the grotesque injuries he sustained.
Frightful because the practice-round visuals proved again just how much golf still desperately needs a scarred and banged-up 46-year-old who is moving around this arena with an old man’s limp.
When Woods first came along as a college kid in the mid-1990s, golf was a fringe, country club sport known best for its shameful history of exclusion. Woods changed everything, obliterating the field with unprecedented power and precision. Packing Arnold Palmer’s muscles and mass appeal, and Jack Nicklaus’s determination and skill, Tiger became the first golfer who stood as the world’s most recognizable athlete.
The game rode that wave and held on for dear life through the scandal, the surgeries, the roadside police video, more surgeries, and even the crash. Golf would never become as popular as football, baseball, and basketball in this country, but Tiger Woods made it feel, at times, as big as the biggest NFL Sunday. There was real hope that a new generation of athletes — inspired by Woods — would abandon the fields and diamonds and courts in favor of the fairways and greens to carry golf to greater heights.
Even though the Rory McElroys, Brooks Koepkas and Dustin Johnsons have brought more athleticism to the game, that revolution hasn’t happened. Kobe Bryant and then LeBron James were there to carry the NBA after Michael Jordan took his ball and went home. Golf has its share of promising young players, but I don’t see any Kobes or LeBrons.
I don’t see any Tigers either, other than the one who believes he can win this tournament on one leg.
Once upon a time, I didn’t think any superstar golfer could be bigger than the Masters itself. Augusta National is Wrigley Field meets Fenway Park, the one major championship venue that never changes and never disappoints. The feel of the sun and the sight of the greenest grass and whitest sand can have a profound restorative impact on a northeasterner worn down by another long winter.
But Woods proved me dead wrong. I’ve covered the Masters with and without him in the field, and the difference in the experience is the difference between a dusty, ragtag par-3 at your local muni and the 12th hole at Amen Corner.
While practicing on the seventh hole Monday, Jon Rahm saw the gallery tracking the Woods, Fred Couples and Justin Thomas group walking down the second hole and said, “I’ve never seen a mass this big, even on a Sunday in contention.” Thomas, one of the best players on the planet, walked alongside that gallery for nine holes and said, “I had a couple of buddies send me some pictures [Monday] night, and that’s probably more people than have ever watched me play a round at Augusta National, and they weren’t there to watch me.”
They were there to watch Tiger because even at this age, and even in this condition, he transcends everything about the game he plays. In other words, no sport has ever needed an athlete more than golf needed and needs Tiger Woods.
Jordan elevated pro basketball globally, but Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had already saved the NBA from late-night, tape-delayed irrelevance in the pre-MJ age long before Kobe and LeBron dominated in the post-MJ, social media age. Tom Brady helped notarize the NFL as must-see TV, but Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes came in behind him as improvisational geniuses at pro football’s most visible position.
Nick Faldo and Greg Norman preceded Woods, and McIlroy, DJ and Jordan Spieth arrived on the back nine of his prime. Legitimate stars, without question, but as champions and public figures not within the longest par-five of Tiger.
“On Monday, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Couples said Wednesday. “I’ve been in the last group here, won here. … I have pictures [from Monday] that I’ll probably have made up. They’re not about me. It’s just the gallery people have sent me … [from] No. 8, No. 7 way back in the corner, and there’s [fans] 10 deep.
“So they wanted to see the big guy, and they saw him and they saw good golf. … It was unbelievable.”
And frightening at the same time. So at 10:34 Thursday morning, when the 15-time major champ and 82-time Tour winner tees off with Louis Oosthuizen and Joaquin Niemann, the entire golf world will stop and watch and roar.
This sport will hold onto Tiger Woods for as long as it possibly can, because there isn’t anyone else remotely like him approaching from the rear.