Turning off Washington Road and away from its fast food joints and ticket hawkers and into the manicured glory of Augusta National Golf Club’s property, one can feel like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole. Or as though you’d gained entry into the emerald city of Oz.
For Tiger Woods, turning his courtesy car down Magnolia Lane and into the past champions’ reserved parking lot near the clubhouse must feel like a visit to Ponce de Leon’s fabled fountain of youth.
This year of 2020 hasn’t been a thrill ride for many of us, and the great Woods is no exception. Since winning the humorously named ZOZO Championship in October 2019 he has had just one top-10 finish. That came in late January. He hacked his way to a 10-over par total for two rounds to miss the cut in September in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
Woods will be 45 next month. It wasn’t that long ago when he wondered if his back would allow him to live a normal life much less play his sport at championship level. His hair is thinning beneath his trademark “TW” logoed cap and he no longer is one of the longest hitters in the game. The new king of that hill, Bryson DeChambeau, sucked up a lot of the pre-Masters oxygen that was in surprisingly short supply for Woods given that he won an amazing fifth green jacket here in 2019. If there were squirrels scuttling along the ground at Augusta National (you never, ever see them), they would have been the only beings going under the radar below Woods.
But something comes over him when he goes to Augusta. Whether it’s some magic waters in the clubhouse spa or perhaps that he takes a baptismal jump into Rae’s Creek in front of the 12th green when no one is looking, Woods is made of different stuff when he plays the Masters.
Woods wasn’t leading as darkness descended on Amen Corner on Thursday to bring the first round to a rain-delayed halt. But his 4-under par 68 (three back of 43-year old Paul Casey) was plenty good enough to serve notice to the rest of the field that a Tiger is once again stalking Augusta’s green hills.
Woods didn’t overpower Augusta National, which was playing even longer than its 7,475 yards because of this week’s rains. Instead, he dissected it. He hit 10 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens, and needed an economical 30 putts. Perhaps even more impressively, Woods didn’t make a bogey for the first time in 87 Masters rounds, the first time he didn’t make a bogey in a round of a major championship since the 2009 PGA.
“Yeah, I did everything well,” Woods said, stating facts without really bragging. “I drove it well, hit my irons well, putted well. The only real bad shot I hit today was I think (at) 8. I had a perfect number with a 60-degree sand wedge and I hit it on the wrong shelf. Other than that, I just did everything well.”
Thursday’s round looked like a continuation of his final round from the 2019 Masters. Other 40-somethings who won in Augusta needed magical Sunday charges to win. Gary Player with a 64 in 1978. Jack Nicklaus with a 65 in 1986. Woods didn’t need such theatrics. He plodded and plotted his way around the course he understands better than anyone, shooting a 2-under 70 while others crashed and splashed around him. It was a master class in what it takes to be a Masters champion, letting others make the mistakes as he prepared to slip his arms back into that iconic sports coat.
Can Woods keep it up for three more rounds? It won’t be easy. His body, held together with knee surgeries, a spinal fusion surgery and perhaps not just a little wishful thinking, could betray him at any moment.
But the mind, the skill, the intelligence. All still sharper than the blade of his irons. It makes the idea of betting against Woods seems like a fool’s errand.
“I think that understanding how to play this golf course is so important,” Woods said.
Indeed it is. And Tiger’s local knowledge stuck a pin in the hype balloon surrounding young guys like Jon Rahm (he rallied for a 69), DeChambeau (rattled through the trees for a 70) and PGA champion Collin Morikawa (even through 10). They have their launch angle monitors and reams of data, but Woods has them all in terms of where to golf his ball at Augusta and where he should not.
What David Mamet said still goes: “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”
We’re going to find out if Woods can beat them with his brand of old age and treachery one more time.