AUGUSTA, Ga. — On the Sunday before he flew to Austin for the WGC-Match Play, Rory McIlroy went to see a friend.
Tiger Woods was at home recovering from his February car crash, and McIlroy knew his fellow Floridian would appreciate the visit.
“I spent a couple hours with him, which was nice. It was good to see him,” McIlroy said. He was also encouraged by Woods’ condition, describing him as in “decent spirits,” which was a good sight to see given the severity of the accident.
“When you hear of these things and you look at the car and you see the crash, it’s like, you think he’s going to be in a hospital bed for six months,” McIlroy said. “But he was actually doing better than that.”
Any golf fan would love to have been a fly on the wall for that visit. What do two generational greats talk about when they’re just hanging out? What did each say to the other?
In the Augusta National press room on Tuesday, it felt too personal to probe any further on that exact topic, so the conversation moved elsewhere. But in the final question of the press conference, I asked him about how he tries to peak for big events — whether he circles them on the calendar or treats them like any other event — and he circled back to his visit with Woods again, sharing a story that had the entire room enthralled.
“I think the circling them on the calendar is probably the best way to go,” he said. “I was thinking about this. So I went over to Tiger’s house a few weeks ago to see him, and in his family room he’s got his trophy cabinet and it’s his 15 major trophies. I said, ‘That’s really cool. Where are all the others?’
“He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I go, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Yeah, my mom has some and a few are in the office and a few are wherever.'”
Woods has famously won 82 PGA Tour events, tied for the most ever. So those 67 non-major trophies are just collecting dust? The moment stuck with McIlroy.
“I was driving home, and I was thinking [those major trophies] are all he cared about. All he cared about. So how easy must that have felt for him to win all the others? That was just always in my mind. He talked about how these are the four weeks that matter. So the weeks that didn’t matter, you know, he racked them up at a pretty fast clip.
“But I’m just thinking to myself, how easy must that have felt for him if all he cared about were four weeks a year. The other stuff must have been like practice. So that’s a cool perspective to have, right? Yeah — that’s all I could think about on the way home.
“And I was glad he was okay, too,” he added with a smile.
McIlroy grew up idolizing Woods long before he became his peer, his competition and, more recently, his friend. He, like everyone else, recognizes this week’s Masters won’t quite be the same without the game’s most famous golfer.
“Yeah, I mean, anytime Tiger Woods tees it up in a golf tournament, it’s better,” he said. “It’s better for the tournament. It’s better for the players that are involved. It’s better for everyone.”
But he’s optimistic about Woods’ recovery. He suggested that with the right rehab, there’s a chance Woods could be back to playing competitive golf — perhaps even for the 2022 Masters.
“Broken bones heal, and he’s just got to take it step by step,” McIlroy said. “But I know he’d love to be here, and I’m sure he’s going to put everything he has into trying to be ready to play here next year.”
McIlroy wasn’t the only Tour pro who’s been able to see Woods in recent days. Justin Thomas, who frequently plays Masters practice rounds with Woods, has been to see him a couple times in recent weeks.
“We texted Friday morning, and he said it’s kind of starting to set in,” Thomas said of Woods. “He’s bummed he’s not here playing practice rounds with us, and we hate it, too.
“I’m very, very lucky that I somehow got thrown into that practice round group with Tiger and Freddie [Couples] the last four years or whatever it is, especially around this place, I just follow them around like puppy dogs. Wherever they go, that’s where I go after it. If they hit chips from somewhere, I go hit chips from there.”
Thomas, like McIlroy, has always drawn inspiration from Woods. Both golfers continue to do so. But now they find themselves in a position to deliver some inspiration of their own.
“I think myself, J.T., Rickie, D.J., Brooks, all those guys down there, we all have a responsibility to try to keep his spirits up and keep him going,” McIlroy said. “And try to get him back out here.”