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HE DODGES DEATH, THEN SHOOTS 71 — TIGER PROVES US WRONG AGAIN
He already has won by resuming competitive golf, 408 days after his horrific SUV wreck, and quickly, Woods wrote another extraordinary chapter by adjusting our focus from his battered body to his game
By the time he ambled to Amen Corner, where the patrons stood and applauded with proper reverence and awe, it was clear he wouldn’t need divine intervention. Tiger Woods could say “Amen’’ himself, if he wanted. He’d already returned to a place not imaginable on a February morning last year, as he lay unconscious amid the tangled wreckage of the SUV he almost drove to his death.
That place was normalcy Thursday, for him and for us.
Rescued by the Jaws of Life from a ditch in Los Angeles, he was defying mortality by not only navigating his first 18 holes at Augusta National — the most grueling walk in golf, 7,510 yards of hilly terrain that would send much healthier men tumbling into Rae’s Creek — but playing well enough to stay on the familiar, old-school leaderboard. He survived a fatigued tee shot at No. 18, on a day of up-and-down recoveries, to finish in the red — with a one-under 71 — and keep alive the preposterous fantasy he’ll be in the Sunday hunt wearing his customary victory-red garment.
“To end up in the red after as long a layoff as I’ve had,’’ he said, “I’m right where I need to be.’’
If not for the inescapable memories of his accident, you wouldn’t have known that this first round at the Masters was different than any other. And in a world where practically nothing is normal, seeing Woods in a pink shirt and black pants and cap, acknowledging the galleries with waves and even a grin or two — well, these were snapshots of hope from which the masses can borrow. It didn’t take long, after studying his every step and swing and occasional grimace, for our focus to shift away from the rod in his reconstructed right leg and the screws and pins in his foot and ankle. We were whisked back into the Tigermania zone, raving about his short game, wincing with him as a birdie putt lipped out, marveling at how he saved par after par in his tried-and-true Masters formula. Did he actually trot onto the course, from behind a tree, to see where his approach shot was landing?
All of which required a dose of perspective, which he willingly provided. “If you would have seen how my leg looked to where it's at now, the pictures ..." Woods said. “Some of (his fellow golfers) know. They've seen the pictures, and they've come over to the house and they've seen it. To see where I've been, to get from there to here, it was no easy task."
Finally, on the 16th green, there was a Tiger Moment, one of sport’s most rousing and tingly thrills. He curled in a 30-foot putt, after some back-nine bumps, and he responded with a punch of his right fist, a two-finger salute to the roaring mob scene — peace? — and a triumphant lift of his club toward the sky. This is what we’ve missed, 509 days since his last official round, 408 days since the wreck.
This is what we’re getting again, when it seemed gone forever. He even dropped an F-bomb, for old times’ sake, when an approach shot fell short of the ninth green. “F— off!’’ he said, as picked up by ESPN’s live microphone. By mid-afternoon, he was feeling better, realizing the magnitude of what just happened in the latest chapter of his indescribable life.
“I’ve been saving it,’’ explained Woods, making a torturous experience sound easy in his post-round interview. “I came up here as a test run to see if I could. I felt good. The whole idea was to keep pushing but keep recovering. That’s the hard part. I’ve been doing that. I figure once the adrenaline kicks in and I get in my own little world, I should be able to handle business.’’
To say he is back — with a capital B — is to disregard the arduous work ahead the next three days. One new reality: He has stopped bending over to read putts. “We’re got a long way to go,’’ he cautioned. “This golf course is going to change dramatically — cooler, drier, windier — and it’s going to get a lot more difficult.’’ He knows Thursday is only one day. At one point, after a bogey at No. 14, his contentment turned to a scowl, and he used his driver as a cane as he made his way to the 15th tee box. Still, more than four hours had passed before the first real reminder of the hell he’d experienced for 13 1/2 months, which is out-of-body stuff, when you think about it, making him a walking, breathing miracle.
It was natural for realists, myself included, to question why he was attempting this whim. Couldn’t he have waited for a flatter course, for his battered and surgically invaded body to keep healing? But this is his life, he keeps telling us, and his emphatic retort is that he’ll play golf on his terms and deal with the pain and struggles. His latest and greatest conquest, more meaningful in its contextual silhouette than his 15 major championships and 82 PGA Tour victories, is in being alive and coming home to Augusta.
He doesn’t have to win a sixth green jacket for this to be recalled as a mind-numbing event in sports history. In a field with favorites much younger — including new world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, two shots behind first-round leader Sungjae Im — it’s still absurd to think Woods would win after a 17-month interruption of competitive golf. The objective this time is to finish, all 72 holes, without dropping to his knees and limping off in a disqualification. He still has three walks, in gusting winds with an incoming cold front, at age 46, but if he continues to play steady and sturdy golf and hang around, he’ll still be relevant this weekend. Imagine that sentence entering your brainstream last year, last month, even last week when he first dropped the hints.
“You just can’t not watch him,’’ said Australia’s Cameron Smith, among the leaders Woods will have to leapfrog. “It’s an inspiration with him coming back and playing golf.”
For now, in a most important subplot, the real drama turns to a bath tub. How Woods finishes the story will be determined by his team of physical therapists. “It’s the recovery. How am I going to get all the swelling out and recover for the next day?’’ he said. “What is my body going to be able to do the next day?’’
What’s the regimen?
“Lots of ice,’’ he said, chuckling.
But didn’t shooting 71 soothe the pain?
“I am as sore as I expected to feel, but it was amazing," he said.
Turns out his friend, Fred Couples, was right. You thought he was being gracious when he said Woods, after two practice rounds, was playing as well as he had in 2019, when he authored a comeback from oblivion perceived at the time as his famous final scene. “He looks the exact same,’’ Couples said. “He stood over the ball and said, ‘Watch this.’ And he drew it around the corner on 13. He looks the exact same to me. It’s just a miraculous thing. Fourteen months ago I was bawling like a baby every day. And now he looks strong. I know the leg is hurt, but he’s hitting it plenty far enough to play this course. He knows what to do.”
Justin Thomas was right, too. He was in the threesome with Woods and Couples and said, “He’s ready to contend. He’s ready to roll. Nobody has a work ethic and determination like him. I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of setting your mind to something and kind of setting a goal for yourself and proving to yourself and everybody that you can do it than him. The days and weeks and months that he couldn’t do anything and do the same thing every single day but would look at it as an opportunity to get better and get stronger and get 1 percent better that day. He’s been through that type of process before. He unfortunately knows better than others, but it’s still unbelievable the stuff that he can do given everything.”
Unbelievable? That works.
“Extraordinary,’’ Nick Faldo said on the telecast, and that works.
But we’re about out of words for this man and his journey. “It’s just truly amazing. I don’t even know how else to say it,” said Masters chairman Fred Ridley, not given to hyperbole in his official green jacket. “I would have probably taken some pretty high odds a few months ago, even a few weeks ago, whether or not he would be here. But when you think about it, it really shouldn’t surprise us. He is one of the most determined, dedicated athletes that I have ever seen in my life.”
The advice he is given from the periphery — Tiger Woods just eyes it all, rips it and places it in the fairway. Maybe the mean walk, in the end, will be too difficult. Maybe he’s a human being, after all. “Seventy-two holes is a long road and it’s going to be a tough challenge,’’ he said, “but it’s a challenge that I’m up for.’’
So far, as usual, he’s winning. Someday, we’ll just let him be.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.