Sixty-three-year-old Ian Woosnam hadn’t played a competitive round in 18 months before he stepped on to the first tee at Augusta National at 8:24 Thursday morning. Needless to say that 2019 start wasn’t exactly the Masters — it was a senior event in Birmingham, England, where he tied for third, good for €10,017.61.
A few months after that, Woosie decided to move forward with something he’d been putting off: back surgery, on his L3 and L4 vertebrae. “I didn’t fuse,” he said Monday. “Just sort of like, cut it out so my nerves would go through — just loosened it up a little bit.” NBD, right? Seemingly not for Woosie, whose trademark scrappiness powered him to 29 European Tour wins, a green jacket (in 1991) and eight Ryder Cups as a player.
Three or four weeks after the surgery, Woosnam was back at it, banging balls on a range in Barbados, where he keeps a home. Then along came a global pandemic. “I had to fly back to the U.K., and I didn’t really finish off my treatment properly, so I had to sort of like do it over, over the internet, and finish my treatment that way,” Woosnam said. “It gave me time to heal and take time off and try and get myself reasonably into some sort of shape anyway.”
Which brings us to this week at Augusta National, Woosnam’s 32nd Masters start. Woosie had no intention of making a run. Most of his practice in the lead-up had come on a simulator. The goal, the Welshman said, was “to walk around 18 holes, or 36 holes, and enjoy it. Just to try and play the course without being in any pain really, because I’ve been in pain for the last 20 years playing around here really.”
Alas, it wasn’t to be. During a practice round over the weekend, Woosie was straining for more yards — “just trying to hit it further,” he said — when he pulled a groin muscle while also reaggravating his back. By Wednesday, he said, the pain had gotten worse. On Thursday morning, more of the same. You couldn’t have blamed Woosnam for packing it in, but Woosie being Woosie, there was little chance of that happening.
So he played. Bogey at the 1st. Two more at the 5th and 7th. Then came his first birdie at the par-5 8th. At the 9th, Woosie short-sided himself in the left greenside bunker, leading to a messy double. But, at 10, he got one back, after slinging his drive around the corner and stuffing his second to three feet. For a fleeting moment it felt like 1991 all over again.
“He’s a phenom, one of the shortest guys that ever played professional golf at 5’4″, at his peak,” Woosie’s fellow Big 5’er, Bernhard Langer, said Thursday afternoon. “Inch for inch, he probably hit the ball further than any human being you’ve ever seen, and with his boxing background, he was just very strong and had a good mind for the game, beautiful technique. You see him, his grip is fantastic, his turn was always good.”
But by the time Woosie made the turn, the ebbs and flows of Augusta’s terrain were getting to him. “On a pretty flat course, I’m pretty good,” he said later. “But as soon as you get on this course, you’re on different slopes — you’re twisting your hips all different ways, you’re hitting off upslopes, downslopes.”
When he holed out for par on the 11th to stay at three over, Woosie was in so much discomfort that he was debating calling it a day. “After the back operation I feel pretty good and then I get to this place and it just tears me apart,” he said.
He played on, slouching after poor shots, expressing little emotion after good ones. After another birdie at 13, followed by bogeys at 15 and 18, Woosie signed for a four-over 76, matching, on what was a supremely difficult day at Augusta National, the score posted by Rory McIlroy, Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Wolff. On Thursday evening, 17 players were at five over or worse, including world No. 10 Patrick Cantlay.
Woosnam was asked if he was content with his round.
“I’m playing on one leg really, so yeah,” he said. “Plus I haven’t had a scorecard in my hand for 18 months, so I was pretty damned pleased really.”
And will he get back out there on Friday?
“Well, being that I’m stupid, I’ll most probably play, get out there, and if it is unplayable, I’ll just have to come in.”
Don’t count on it.