The Masters That Never Was, Part I: A fictional flight to Augusta with Tiger Woods

tiger woods and justin thomas

Ed. note: Welcome to The Masters That Never Was, a FICTIONAL account of how the Masters Tournament *might* have played out had it been conducted this week at Augusta National Golf Club. (The 2020 tournament has been postponed with much speculation that it will be rescheduled for the fall.) This is the first of eight installments that we’ll publish on GOLF.com over the eight days of what would have been Masters week. Each story will be posted in the early evening, as if our reporters were on site, filing at the conclusion of each practice day or tournament round. Part I begins with your defending champion at 40,000 feet…

*****

AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the perks of owning your own plane is that you can do whatever you please. Tiger Woods’s Gulfstream had barely taken off from the North Palm Beach County Airport when the host popped out of his seat — you could call it a sofa — and passed out heavy glasses emblazoned with the Masters logo, splashing in each two fingers of single-malt Macallan.

“This was Pop’s favorite drink,” Woods said.

This was on the Sunday before Masters Sunday, in the early afternoon. Woods had spent the morning with his daughter, Sam, and his son, Charlie.

“The Open at Troon [in 1997] was our first time over there since I had signed all my deals. I bought him a case and every year since this is how we started Masters week. Now I do it without him, a tradition unlike any other.”

Glasses went to (among others) Rob McNamara, Tiger’s right-hand man; to Joe LaCava and Mark Steinberg; to Erica Herman; to two GOLF.com reporters invited to hang. Amazing, yes, but Tiger’s pursuit of a sixth green jacket also marked the start of the Hope Hicks era for Team Tiger. Hicks, one of President Trump’s confidants, left the White House to take the position as Woods’s communications chief.

Woods pointed to his new publicist. “Hope couldn’t stand looking at Donald make that loopy swing in the Oval anymore,” he said, laughing at his own joke.

“To new beginnings!” Hicks said, clinking glasses.

“And new money,” Woods added, taking a big gulp and chewing on some ice.

The midday sun filled the jet as it banked a turn and headed over the Atlantic. His drink looked suspiciously like ginger ale.

Beneath the logo on his glass was fine etching:

1997
TIGER WOODS
EAGLE—HOLE NO. 15

That eagle had been the key moment in his back-nine surge during the first round, a rally that ultimately propelled Woods to the victory that established him as a cross-cultural icon. Now, Tiger was returning to Augusta as the defending champion, his career bookended by his two most meaningful victories. Does he ever allow himself to reflect on the grand sweep of his career?

“Back in the day, never,” Woods said. “Now? Definitely more than I used to. About a week after last year’s Masters, Sam asked if we could watch some old tournaments. You know her thing. You’re a YouTube golfer. She had never done that before so I cued up ’97. I thought she might be impressed. She thought it was hilarious. She was all over me, mocking my belt, my parachute pants, my hair — all of it. But what struck me most was how young I looked. And how easy it was.”

He suddenly stopped talking. Left unspoken was how hard it would become.

On Sunday afternoon, Woods and his confidants jetted out of South Florida and into Augusta.
On Sunday afternoon, Woods and his confidants jetted out of South Florida and into Augusta.
getty / photo illustration

The golf world shuddered when Woods withdrew from last month’s Players, citing back issues, and then walked off the course 11 holes into the second day of the ensuing WGC-Match Play, even though he was 3-up on Brendon Todd at the time. He hadn’t been seen in public since.

But Tiger’s buoyant mood on the flight to Augusta owed much to his recent trip to Iceland, from where Woods had just returned after receiving three days of treatment. “Fred told me about his guy there,” Woods said. Fred Couples. “Back feels effing great. Best since Zozo.”

The man with 15 major championships started playing some kind of interactive tennis game with his son, Charlie, on an iPad. Nobody was really drinking. LaCava had the flagstick from 18 from last year’s tournament with him. He said he wanted Tony Finau and Francesco Molinari’s caddies to sign it.

“You know what you could get for that at auction?” Steinberg said.

“That flagstick is sitting in my den for the rest of my life,” the caddie said.

“I know, I know,” the super-agent said. “Just saying. LeBron told me he’d give you $100,000 for it.”

Steinberg had Cleveland down cold. He came up at IMG, which is based in Cleveland.

“Text me his digits,” LaCava said.

Woods had headphones on. He was in another world.

One of the reporters whispered to Hicks, “This is kind of personal, but does Tiger drink?”

“He doesn’t not drink,” she said. “But he hates the empty calories, and his main goal is to set a good example for his kids.”

The plane was descending toward Augusta now.

With his headphones on and in an unusually loud voice, Woods looked at the course and said, “All those suckers down there are in trouble.”

It was almost like he was talking to himself.

*****

Augusta National, on the Sunday before Masters Sunday, is an interesting scene. Club members still have access to the course, so old guys with bad swings sporadically tee off among the game’s best players. Past champs are permitted to play with a guest. Bubba Watson teed off with his wife Angie, each 6-foot-4 and athletic. Adam Scott played with his father, the Aussie golfer’s eyes welling with emotion. The Augusta National members tend to play with their friends.

The Sunday before Masters Sunday is also the final of the Drive, Chip & Putt. The grounds were crawling with excited kids and their nervous parents. Phil Mickelson eyed them from the back porch of the clubhouse, where he was dining with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. “It’s brilliant PR,” Mickelson said. “I told Ridley that next year he should turn it up a notch: combine the DCP with the Latin-American Am.” He paused for a beat. “But make it only for orphans.”

There was nervous laughter. With Mickelson, it can be hard to know when he’s joking. His wife Amy shot him a look.

“Joking, people,” Mickelson said. “Joking!”

Amy addressed the reporters lingering near the table. “Remember when Phil bought all those Waffle Houses and Five Guys franchises? Well, one of the girls in my Bikram yoga class accused us of supporting factory farming and enabling obesity. So, Phil is pivoting to the fresh foods sector. There’s going to be a big announcement soon but come on by this week and sample the goods!”

They were some team.

“Everyone knows I’m into coffee,” Phil said. “We’ll have a whole line of that. But what I’m most excited about is that we’re introducing artisanal coffee enemas. I started doing them the week of Riv and I’ve never felt so fresh. Picked up six miles an hour of ball speed just like that. We’ll do a little demonstration when you swing by.”

Just then Mickelson’s gaze wandered to an unlikely sight: Patrick Reed pressing flesh beneath the giant oak between the clubhouse and the 1st tee. Reed had spent all morning presiding over the Drive, Chip & Putt festivities. Now the 2018 Masters champ wore his green jacket and a tight smile, joking with the kids and chatting with their parents.

Reed was making his return to competition after the unsettling events at the Players, where he was standing over a 12-footer for birdie on the 72nd green to force a playoff with Erik van Rooyen when two protestors stormed the green. One dumped a bag of sand on the putting surface while the other began building a castle before being tackled by one of the Tour’s vice presidents, Ty Votaw.

Understandably rattled, Reed left the ensuing birdie putt four feet short. The bad juju enveloping him will be one of the big stories early in the week.

Patrick Reed is looking to rediscover his Augusta magic from 2018.
Patrick Reed is looking to rediscover his Augusta magic from 2018.
getty photo / illustration

One of the pleasures of Masters week is that the whole golf world gathers, and you never know who will be standing under the tree. Tom Watson was there, eyeing Reed with a bemused expression. Watson was asked how he felt about having Reed as a fixture of the Tuesday night Champions Dinner. He just rolled his eyes.

At that moment a distinguished older gentleman in a crisp blue blazer wandered over. “Mr. Watson! Would you mind if I had a word with your distinguished friends from the Fifth Estate?”

It was James Baker III, President George H.W. Bush’s former chief of staff.

“Gentleman, in Texas we take care of our own,” Baker said. “I’ve been asked by some of my fellow Texans if I might help unruffle a few feathers regarding Mr. Reed and his public perception and I am delighted to help. I feel like the young man has been terribly misunderstood. We’d like a GOLF.com staffer to serve as his caddie during the Par-3 Contest. Would that be agreeable?”

Of course it would.

“Wonderful,” Baker said, offering crushing handshakes in parting. “I already have your information. I will be in touch with all of the particulars.”

At that moment the clubhouse doors swung open like an Old West saloon and Woods marched out, flanked by McNamara and LaCava. They were ready to get to work, picking up where they had left off a year earlier, except in 2019 their Sunday afternoon scouting began on the first hole.

“Joey, bring the whole sack, but we’re not touching anything but the driver and putter,” Woods said as they walked to the 10th tee.

Tiger teed up a ball a half-inch, if that, above the tightly mown turf. LaCava handed him his 3-wood.

The caddie turned to a reporter and said, “Sometimes his rules are more like guidelines, ya know?”

Woods hit a smooth 3-wood that still made it to bottom of the hill. The group made a gentle stroll down the slope. McNamara picked up the ball and flipped it to LaCava.

“We’d take four days of that shot,” he said.

LaCava continued his story about a long-ago Masters, when he was caddying for his cousin, Ken Green, who was paired with Seve Ballesteros. On the 10th hole, Seve wanted ground-under-repair relief for a wet spot. Green refused to budge. It was told colorfully and with obvious embellishment. “And Kenny goes, ‘Hey, Seve — why don’t you just play lift, smooth and place in the traps while you’re at it.'” Woods was laughing.

They walked up to the 10th green. Woods did some lag putting to all the popular pin positions. Justin Thomas, walking down the hill from the 11th tee, approached Woods.

Woods is seeking his sixth green. Justin Thomas, his first.
Woods is seeking his sixth green. Justin Thomas, his first.
getty / photo illustration

“Don’t I see enough of you at Medalist?” Woods said by way of greeting.

“Yeah, good morning to you,” Thomas said. “Is it the back, the arthritis or the gout that has you so grumpy?”

Woods laughed.

“Seriously, what the hell are you doing here on a Sunday?” Woods asked. “You’re gonna burn yourself out.”

“Trying to follow your lead, old man,” Thomas said. “For real, how’s the back?”

Tiger hummed a tune and sang with mock sincerity: “With a little love, and some tenderness/We’ll walk upon the water/We’ll rise about this mess.”

One of the reporters whispered to LaCava, ”Is that Dylan?”

“No, better: Hootie and the Blowfish.”

Thomas slipped out a cellphone from his pocket, covertly.

“Check this out,” he said.

He showed Woods a weather forecast for the week. Thursday and Friday was supposed to be unusually warm and sunny.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Woods said, but it didn’t look like he actually knew. He turned to LaCava and made an expression that said, This is a good forecast for us.

Thomas motioned toward the 11th green. He was looking for his second major.

“You wanna come with?” he asked.

“Hell no.”

The defending champion resumed his lag putting. Masters week is the longest preamble in the sport, and there were still three and a half days until Woods would have a pencil in his pocket. He had all the time in the world to groove his putting stroke.

The Day 2 recap from The Masters That Never Was will be published on GOLF.com on Monday evening.

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