AUGUSTA, Ga. — For months, Tiger Woods has been managing our expectations.
First it was a question of whether we’d see him play golf at a competitive level. Woods insisted he had no speed and limited mobility.
Next it was a question of when we’d see Woods return. The Genesis came and went. Bay Hill. The Players, too.
After that came the Masters waiting game. We didn’t hear much from Woods himself, instead relying on internet sleuths tracking his jet and monitoring the Masters website. He slow-played this decision until Sunday morning, when he finally acknowledged he’d be heading to Augusta and making a “game-time decision” on whether he’d compete.
But during tournament week, Augusta National is a long way from Woods’ home course at Medalist. A live stream of his range sessions revealed that he was hitting driver plenty far and that speed was no issue whatsoever; his tee shots were carrying as much as 300 yards and his ball speed was consistently in the mid-170s.
His playing partners gushed about his preparations, too. Cameron Davis, who Woods intersected with on Sunday afternoon, was optimistic about his chances to contend.
“Yeah, he’s striking it well,” Davis attested. “He’s hitting it far enough to play the holes the way you need to play them.”
Fred Couples, who played with Woods and Justin Thomas on Monday, took things a step further.
“If he can walk around here in 72 holes, he’ll contend. He’s too good. He’s too good,” he said.
But we still hadn’t heard anything more official from Woods than a wait-and-see approach. Enter Tuesday at 11:09 a.m., when he finished up another promising practice session and appeared in the Masters media center for his press conference.
First came the news:
“As of right now, I feel like I am going to play,” Woods said. Then came the real news: Woods isn’t just here to show up. Does he legitimately think he can win?
Those two words set the press room at attention. We’ve heard Woods say for decades that he’ll only show up to professional events if he thinks he can win. But that was before car accidents and surgeries and the inevitabilities of aging. If his expectations had changed, nobody would have blamed him.
“I can hit it just fine,” Woods added. “I don’t have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint. It’s now, walking is the hard part. This is normally not an easy walk to begin with. Now, given the conditions that my leg is in, it gets even more difficult.”
Woods was still self-deprecating about his physical limitations. He joked about the challenges of upslopes and downslopes and sideslopes. He mentioned that preparations that used to seem simple now take multiple hours. He said that when it’s cold, things get measurably more difficult.
“I think anyone who’s in this room who’s older than me can probably attest to that,” he said with a grin.
But when it came to his actual expectations, it’s clear Woods hasn’t ceded a single hole to Father Time. Sure, he acknowledged that he would have been satisfied with his career should it have already ended — “I think 82 [wins] is a pretty good number, and 15 [majors] isn’t too bad either,” he said — but he scaled this mountain again with one intention: to get to the top.
“Well, I love competing, and I feel like if I can still compete at the highest level, I’m going to, and if I feel like I can still win, I’m going to play. But if I feel like I can’t, then you won’t see me out here. You guys know me better than that,” he said.
That doesn’t mean Woods will play forever. In fact, it probably guarantees that he won’t.
“I don’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it. So that’s the attitude I’ve had,” he said. “There will be a day when it won’t happen, and I’ll know when that is, but physically the challenge this week is I don’t have to worry about the ball striking or the game of golf, it’s actually just the hills out here.”
There are other obstacles, of course. There are 90 other players, many of them quite talented. There’s the difficulty of Augusta National, which has only added challenges this year. And there’s the small matter that Woods hasn’t played a stroke play tournament since two Masters ago, in November 2020. Surely there’s some competitive rust?
We’ll worry about that come Thursday, when the players start writing down scores and adding them up. In the meantime, it’s worth basking in the the improbability of the moment: Woods is fighting back. He’s coming back. And once again, he’s at Augusta National, hoping to win.