AUGUSTA, Ga. — Enjoy it! This is only going to get harder.
That, in summation, is what the Tiger Woods of today would tell his 19-year-old self about Augusta National. In 1995, when Woods arrived at his first Masters as a first-year student at Stanford, he made just about everything look easy — including the world’s most famous golf course. That was more than half his lifetime ago. And on Saturday of this year’s Masters, a day when exactly nothing looked easy for a 44-year-old Woods, he was asked to reflect back on that debut.
“When I first played it, I thought this was one of the shortest and most open golf courses that I thought there was,” he said on Saturday evening. “It was just a driver and a wedge everywhere. There really wasn’t a bunker off the tee that was in play. The first time I played here, I drove a 3-wood into the bunker on 10.”
There’s a metaphor for youth in there somewhere. But if that course strategy rings a bell, it’s because how Woods saw the course then is how we expected Bryson DeChambeau to see the course this time around. Driver-wedge into every hole. Flying bunkers with ease. Overpowering the golf course.
Woods can’t do that anymore. Partly because he’s a 44-year-old with a surgically-fused back and partly because this Augusta National has a whole extra set of teeth.
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“Obviously the tees have been all lengthened and it’s a very different golf course. The fairways were all cut downgrain at the time,” Woods said. “I never really hit anything more than probably, what, an 8-iron into a par-4? And so never would I have dreamt that this golf course would have changed this much, would have been lengthened this much and have been playing this much longer than it was then.”
At the 2020 Masters, Woods’ marathon 26-hole Saturday began just before 4 a.m. He rose, ate, worked out, loosened up. That process takes longer than it used to. As Woods tried to play his way into contention, he did several things he never would have done as a 19-year-old. He laid up from 213 yards on the 13th hole. He hit a fairway wood into the par-5 15th. And he spent much of the afternoon stiff and in pain, struggling to pick his golf ball out of the bottom of the cup.
“Yeah, it’s just part of the deal. If you have long days like this, I’m going to get a little bit sore, which I definitely am.”
In between, Woods hit plenty of terrific golf shots, made fewer putts than he wanted and stalled out on the third page of the leaderboard. He finished off a one-under 71 in the morning and worked hard for an even-par 72 in the afternoon. He began the day five shots off the lead and finished the day 11 back of Dustin Johnson.
“Well, I can walk all day,” Woods said after his round. “The hard part is bending and twisting. I think that’s part of the game, though.”
He said the last bit with a smile.
It’s very believable that a 44-year-old golfer is struggling with back pain. Seeing that golfer in pain at Augusta should remind us just how incredible it is that he’s the defending champion at this golf tournament, biggest in the world. Woods has hardly thrown in the towel, either — he’s still sitting in a share of 20th place.
But things are undeniably more complex, particularly at Augusta, where we’ve seen snippets of Woods’ life play out, chapter after chapter, for 25 years. Tomorrow, barring a round in the 50s, he’ll slip the green jacket on another golfer. He said he hasn’t thought yet about how emotional that scene will be, but he didn’t dismiss the question, either.
“Today was a long, tough day,” he admitted, another admission we’d never have seen from teenage Tiger. “We’ll see how emotional it’ll be after tomorrow’s round.”
Woods was deservedly emotional after last year’s win. That was a victory for caring, for trying, for never giving up. Golf may be harder for him now, especially relative to his peers, but that part — the trying and caring — has remained a constant. That’s a future the 19-year-old should be proud of.
Oh, and one other note about Woods in 1995: He finished T41. Plenty has gotten harder over the years, but there’s something to be said for experience, too. And on Sunday, 25 years into his Masters career, he’ll likely finish higher on the leaderboard than on his first go ’round.
He’s learned a thing or two since then.