AUGUSTA, Ga. — Before the breathless speculation about what’s next, before we see if his jet is stopping for practice rounds in Tulsa, before we start mapping out his path to victory at St. Andrews, let’s take a moment to appreciate what Tiger Woods did this week at Augusta National.
How do you measure this Masters for Woods? The numbers that explain his result are inadequate in telling its story. Solo 47th. A career-highest 13 over par. Back-to-back 78s on the weekend. One number comes closer — his 22nd consecutive made cut at Augusta — but still falls short. What it meant to Woods himself, and to those around him, and to those of us watching along? That’s much tougher to quantify.
Woods limped down the 14th fairway on Sunday alongside playing partner Jon Rahm. He was canted slightly forward, the stride of a man with a fused back whose body is made partly of metal. He was using his driver as something of a hiking pole, helping to propel himself forward, in clear discomfort. He was already three over par for his round, 10 over par for the tournament. But still fighting.
Woods had a massive gallery in tow, including one particularly enthusiastic pocket of supporters on the rope line, all dressed in red and black. Tiger colors. They cheered loudly as Woods went by, the way a family might root on their father at a half-marathon. One of them asked her friends if she should deploy her loud whistle. She went for it. They cheered louder.
Woods’ daughter Sam and girlfriend Erica Herman were among that group. Tiger has stressed all week that only those closest to him could understand the extent of his fight back. Sam agreed.
“It’s miraculous,” she said of this week’s start. “It shouldn’t be happening.”
“I mean, nothing ever surprises me about him,” Herman said. “But he’d just worked so hard to be here, that was the one thing I knew: once he got here, he wasn’t going to go home.”
She used the same words that Woods has all week. Appreciative. Thankful.
“This feels like a home game for him,” she said. “This has been his home turf for so long. Everybody around the club knows him. They know us now, too.”
“Grandma’s famous here,” Sam added, referring to Tiger’s mother Kultida. “She knows everybody.”
In the background, Woods faced down a 37-foot bogey putt. He took his time mulling it over. Every shot counts the same, even if you’re 20 off the lead. He poured it in. The crowd went wild.
Nearby, an athletic man in a crisp Augusta National polo took in the action. It was Bryson DeChambeau. He’d missed the cut but stuck around to watch Woods. This isn’t just rare; it never happens. Pros don’t watch other pros play golf. What was DeChambeau doing there? He shrugged.
“I came out to support the best ever,” he said. “It’s really cool — I don’t know how many chances I’ll get to do something like this.”
The man is a magnet. This place is a magnet. Once you’re here, you don’t want to leave. Once you leave, you want to come back.
A hundred miles away at his home in Bluffton, S.C., Johnny Pruitt was trying to make sense of it all.
“I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about what he’s doing right now,” he said on Sunday afternoon as Woods finished up his final round.
When is comes to miracles at Augusta National, Pruitt is something of an expert. He was standing at Amen Corner in 2018 when his heart failed, sending him into major cardiac arrest. He turned blue. His heart stopped. By the time he got proper medical attention, he’d gone minutes without a pulse. To quote Pruitt himself: “I was very much not alive.”
Through exhaustive medical procedures and sheer force of will, Pruitt pulled through. The next year he was back at Augusta, walking carefully, celebrating the anniversary of his death. Woods was back, too, completing a miraculous comeback by winning his fifth green jacket. Pruitt has never met Woods, but he marks their progress together. He couldn’t believe that 2019 win. He couldn’t believe Woods came back this year, either.
“I don’t know what his dad taught him about mind over body but there’s something else there that would make you that passionate and that determined to do what he does,” Pruitt said. He gets emotional, talking about Woods. That’s one of Tiger’s hallmarks: He inspires emotion. “That’s the thing, right? He’s not in it for the money,” Pruit continued. “He doesn’t have to do this.”
He doesn’t have to. But something compelled Woods to battle back for this year’s Masters. Despite the fact that he’s 46 years old. Despite the fact that he’s already arguably the greatest golfer in history. Despite the fact that he’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And despite the fact that 14 months ago he was on an operating table following a horrific car crash, with a “50/50 chance” of losing his leg.
After his round, Woods was self-deprecating about his performance but seemed to understand the gravity of his presence. He was already thinking big picture. He talked about how much the tournament has meant to his entire family. He talked about his presence and where it fits in the tournament’s complex history.
“You go back to the year I was born, that was the year that the first black man played in the Masters, Lee Elder,” he said. “He was an honorary starter last year. He was there when I won in ’97. Twenty-five years later, here I am playing again.”
Asked about just how much he’d been through to get back to this point, Woods repeated a line we’ve heard throughout the week.
“I don’t think people really understand,” he said. “The people who are close to me understand. They’ve seen it. Some of the players who are close to me have seen some of the pictures and the things that I have had to endure. They appreciate it probably more than anyone else because they know what it takes to do this out here at this level.”
That marks an enormous difference for this version of Tiger Woods. He wants us to understand, even as he knows we can’t and won’t. He’s not taking this for granted. We shouldn’t, either.
Woods keeps teaching us lessons at Augusta National. The last time he played the Masters, he doomed his chances at a top finish when he made 10 at the par-3 12th. Instead of tapping out he went back to work and churned out five birdies in his final six holes, his best-ever finish to a round at Augusta.
This year’s entire appearance was a lesson in perseverance. It was a lesson in, well, Woods can explain it better.
“I fight each and every day,” he said, explaining the example he’s hoping to set. “Each and every day is a challenge. Each and every day presents its own different challenges for all of us. I wake up and start the fight all over again.”
He limped off the podium. He hugged his family. It was time to rest.
The speculation started before Woods left property. The PGA at Southern Hills is a maybe. Ditto for the U.S. Open at Brookline. Woods has the Open Championship at St. Andrews circled on his calendar. “I am looking forward to St. Andrews,” he told Sky Sports. “That is something that is near and dear to my heart. I’ve won two Opens there, it’s the home of golf, and it’s my favorite golf course in the world. So I will be there for that one.”
In time, all things. Woods made his way through the clubhouse, his mother beside him, his son in front of him, scores of diehard fans cheering even as he left their line of sight.
LaCava lingered for a moment, gazing out over the property and then back at the assembled media. He raised a hand.
“Be good, guys,” he said. “We’ll see you down the road.”
Things won’t ever be the same. Not Woods’ body. Not his schedule. Not his golf game. He’ll be back nonetheless.
That’s the lesson.