AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is perhaps easier to count the people who weren’t at the first tee at Augusta National at 11 a.m. on Thursday.
As for those who were? There were celebrities. Golf industry stakeholders. Green Jackets. Players and caddies. A TV drone the size of a small plane. A few dozen camerapeople. A medium-sized army of security officers. And many, many thousand fans.
And there was Tiger Woods.
The line outside the ropes was 10 deep, and even deeper as you got closer to the tee box. The mass of humanity stretched the length of the opening hole’s 460 yards. They’d begun assembling near the first tee box sometime around 10:30, just after Woods first appeared on the practice range. The five-time Masters champ was a self-professed “game-time decision” for Thursday, but 30 minutes prior to the beginning of play, the decision felt like ancient history.
Tiger emerged on the practice range in a spat of all-black interrupted by a camouflage, hot-pink mock-neck. He hit chips, he hit irons, he hit woods. Space was scarce (the grandstand was a standing-room-only affair). Excitement, however, was not.
“Tiger’s here?” A father and son asked a gallery guard situated behind the grandstand.
The guard’s face spread into a smile.
Back at the first tee, the energy reached a fever pitch. Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Smith — the group directly preceding Tiger’s — walked wide-eyed back toward the first tee box. They hit their tee shots uneventfully, though hardly anyone noticed. Then they scurried down the first fairway.
Just as their 10:55 a.m. grouping left the tee, the energy shifted. A shockwave rippled through the crowd, sending heads snapping and shoulders turning back in the direction of the clubhouse.
You could hear him before you could see him — a frenetic noise that spread through the crowd like wildfire. Then, after a few painstaking seconds, Tiger emerged.
He wore a smile, but his eyes were serious. He made sure to look directly into the gallery, nodding and grasping the brim of his cap. He moved quickly, working through the corridor and up toward the practice green.
“I could almost touch him,” one woman said, her eyes wide.
The crowd struggled for a minute to process the reality before their eyes. A few hundred extra fans squeezed into the area surrounding the tee box. It was almost time.
If there was any lingering doubt the golf gods were smiling down upon the Masters on Thursday morning, it was eliminated at 11:03 a.m. local time. It was then, just seconds before Tiger’s scheduled tee time, that the gray clouds above broke into shards of jagged blue.
A fan named Jeremy laughed.
“I guess even the sun comes out for Tiger.”
Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd. A green jacket stepped into the center of the tee box.
“Fore please! Tiger Woods is now driving!”
The crowd exploded, the noise reverberating down the first fairway and back.
At long last, Tiger stepped to the tee box, clutching a driver in his hand.
He took a few practice swings. Then a deep breath.
His tee shot peeled from left to right and wound up in the right rough. Nobody at the tee box seemed to care. They screamed with all their might as the ball rocketed through the air.
A few seconds later, Tiger Woods was gone, disappearing down the fairway and into his 24th (and most unbelievable) Masters start.
The comeback was complete. This part, at least.