AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Tiger Woods Factor. It impacts everyone here at the Masters. Everyone who cares about golf. Even people who think golf is stuffy and pointless.
Everybody. Tout le monde.
There’s a buzz among the patrons, who flocked a dozen deep or more Tuesday as Tiger played a practice round with Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters (we’re talking about practice), making eagles on 13 and 15. There’s a buzz among the media, as everyone senses what an enormous, once-in-a-career story it would be if Woods overcomes nearly a decade of personal and physical torment to win a fifth green jacket.
“Well, I have four rounds to play,” Woods said before a packed (and I mean packed) interview room here Tuesday, “so let’s just kind of slow down.”
There’s even a buzz among the players, especially the twentysomethings, inspired by the prophet Tiger to devote their lives to golf by watching Woods leap from victory to victory in a career that once seemed inexorable and infinite. Even they are, to use a modern term, fanboys.
“With Tiger, I think everyone can be like a fanboy,” said India’s Shubhankar Sharma, who was 8 months old when Woods set the golf world ablaze with his record-setting 1997 Masters rout. “When I was in Dubai, I saw Rory (McIlroy) and Dustin (Johnson) and all these guys. But Tiger has a different aura about him.”
“I think he has been an idol to all of us, right?” said Spain’s Jon Rahm, 23, who watched Monday as fans at the practice facility gave Woods an ever-lovin’ standing ovation. “It doesn’t happen for anybody else. It’s when someone like Tiger is back in the game and back at Augusta. It’s special.”
Woods is three years removed from his last Masters appearance. He is 13 years removed from his last of four Masters victories in 2005, 13 years since his ball tumbled into the cup on 16 with that last turn of a Nike swoosh.
Even Woods, who seemed capable of bending the world to his will before he bent his SUV around a fire hydrant in 2009, seemed taken aback by how fast life hurtles past once we reach middle age.
“I don’t feel like it’s been that long,” said Woods, 42. “A lot of these kids (a.k.a., fellow professional golfers), some of their first memories are of when I won my last major championship. That’s crazy.”
That was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when Woods gutted out a 19-hole playoff victory over Rocco Mediate, playing on an ailing left knee and a fractured leg. That was his 14th major title at 32, at a time when it seemed Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18 majors would be but a historical marker on Woods journey to, what, 20 major titles? Twenty-five?
How about zero since then? Woods has been on and off the tour the past decade, most of it lost in a wilderness of his own failings (a string of tawdry affairs that came to light and ended his marriage) and more recently a string of back problems that threatened his ability to even live life pain-free.
He underwent spinal fusion surgery nearly a year ago, by Woods’ own admission a last ditch effort to restart his career. Mission accomplished, especially lately. There was a 12th-place finish in the Honda Classic, a runner-up showing in the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
He said Tuesday he isn’t swinging it quite as fast as he did in his incomparable prime, but he’s above 120 mph clubhead speed. He said one tracking recently had him at 129 mph.
“That’s a miracle, isn’t it?” Woods said.
It may be. It may also be too good to be true for the long term. That’s the fear of Baton Rouge orthopedic surgeon Dr. Hank Eiserloh, a consultant with LSU and the Saints.
Eiserloh said he performs 75-100 fusion surgeries a year, similar to the one Woods had. He said the fear is that the strike Woods gives the ball could transfer force above and below the fused vertebrae. And that those points on Woods’ spine could eventually break down, perhaps suddenly.
“We all say once you do a fusion surgery you have to think about when you’re going to do the next one,” Eiserloh said. “Higher or lower. It’s a matter of time before it wears out.”
A fervent golf fan who has attended several Masters, Eiserloh hopes Woods’ back is rebuilt to last. But he worries about a lash Tiger may take from the pine straw off Augusta’s fairways, where an unseen root may be lurking.
“Think about 13,” where Mickelson hit an amazing recovery from the pine straw en route to his 2010 win. “A tough shot. He overswings. The minute he does that, he’s putting his back at risk.
“I think he knows that. But his goal is to catch Jack.”
Woods’ chase of Nicklaus is back on. His quest once seemed inevitable. It again seems possible.
But there is a chance it could be awful.
Maybe that danger is a thread in why we find Woods’ comeback so compelling.