AUGUSTA, Ga. — As Aaron Jarvis and James Piot were teeing off on Augusta National’s 10th hole on Sunday afternoon, they heard some interesting news.
Tiger Woods had just teed off in front of them.
“Me and Aaron were like, ‘No way, holy crap!” Piot remembered, a day later.
The two played the par-4 as quickly as they could in the hopes of catching up to Woods, who had just flown in earlier that day in preparation for his potential start at this year’s Masters.
“Aaron was like, ‘I’m gonna go for it. I’m gonna ask him,” Piot said. “I didn’t have the courage to do it. He ran through the trees and was like, ‘Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods, do you mind if we join you?’ [Tiger] gave him a big smile and said, ‘Sorry, I’m playing alone today.’ It was really cool.”
Jarvis, the 19-year-old Latin American Amateur champ, wasn’t put off in the slightest.
“Y’know, there’s no better rejection than from Tiger Woods, right? So, I thought would I give it a shot,” he said.
So despite his best efforts, Jarvis didn’t end up playing with Woods. He didn’t get an up-close look at the most scrutinized golf swing in the world ahead of the most scrutinized comeback in the world.
But several other pros did get to see the five-time Masters champ up close. Their reviews were overwhelmingly positive.
On Sunday, Woods was playing the back nine when he eventually caught up with Cameron Davis, a 27-year-old Aussie who he’d met but never actually played with. Davis was waiting on a group of members ahead of him, so he waved Woods up to join him. The merge meant Davis was in for a memorable afternoon, and he came away impressed with his playing partner’s prowess and progress.
“I’ve never seen it in person, that’s the thing,” he said. “It’s just, he hits the proper shot and struck it really well and good distance control, all the things you need. Just looked like the work he’s been putting in has set him up pretty well for this week, if he feels ready.”
Davis noted that Woods was “a little slow” walking up hills on the final two holes, which is understandable given the 18th is among the steepest climbs on property. That jibed with Woods’ own evaluation that walking the course would actually be a greater challenge than playing it.
But Davis saw that Woods is able to take the ball speed and carry yardage from the driving range to the course.
“He’s hitting it far enough to play the holes the way you need to play them,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be able to put rounds together out here.”
Davis even got a nugget of advice from Woods, though it’s one he’d heard before.
“Putts break a lot more than they look like,” Davis said that Woods told him. Because the greens are kept slightly slower for day-to-day member play, pros have to recalibrate come tournament time.
“For tournament play, it breaks twice as much, maybe more sometimes, and the ball just loves to keep on rolling around in those hills,” Davis said. “So just play the high line, and the high line is higher than you think. I think that was the main [tip].”
The two played on in relative anonymity; just one media member followed along, accompanied by a couple employees on site. It was an idyllic Sunday at his favorite tournament.
Monday dawned different. The gates opened, fans followed and Woods was joined on course by tens of thousands of his new best friends. He was also joined by two of his closest pals on Tour: Fred Couples and Justin Thomas. Couples said he wasn’t sure of their plans until Sunday night but was delighted to hear their annual practice round was a “go.”
“He sent me a text [Sunday] night saying, dude, we’re playing at 3:00 tomorrow, see you on the tee.
“I said, ‘You bet.'”
Post-round, he was effusive about Woods’ game.
“Yeah, he looked phenomenal,” Couples said. This is part of the annual tradition: Couples speaking excitedly about a cherished round with friends. “You know, he’s my favorite guy,” he added.
Couples was particularly taken with Woods’ length off the tee.
“Well, what impresses me the most is he was bombing it,” he said. “If you want to talk golf, he was bombing it. I know JT is not the longest hitter on the Tour, but I know he’s damn long. [Tiger] was with him, flushing it.”
Couples says he never likes to speculate on Woods’ game nor pry about his progress — “I love him as one of my best friends and I want to damn keep it that way,” he said — but he felt comfortable heaping praise on his prep.
“To hit it like that? Now it’s just the walking part,” he said. “I’ve said it three times. I don’t need to expand much on that. If he can walk around here in 72 holes, he’ll contend. He’s too good.” He repeated himself for effect. “He’s too good.”
Thomas was slightly more guarded in his appraisal of Woods’ game. He’s understandably wary about sharing state secrets; Woods refers to him as a “little brother” and likely expects their relationship to largely stay within the family. Thomas declined to reveal any advice Woods has given him on playing Augusta National — “I’m not going to tell you because I don’t really want any of the other competitors knowing it,” he said — and didn’t elaborate on the state of Woods’ game, either.
“I’m sure you can read on Twitter every shot he hit,” he said, grinning. “No, it was fine. It’s plenty, plenty good enough to play well.”
Despite his reticence, Thomas emphasized that he’s continually amazed by Woods’ ability to keep showing up.
“It’s crazy. Nobody has a work ethic and determination like him,” he said. “I mean, the days and weeks and months that he couldn’t do anything and did the same thing every single day but would look at it as an opportunity to get better and get stronger and get 1 percent better that day.”
Three days in, those were Woods’ three playing partners. Testimony poured in from others who’ve seen him, too: From Rory McIlroy (“The golf is there. He’s hitting it well, he’s chipping it well, he’s sharp.”) and from Billy Horschel (“He still amazes us even at, what is he, 46 now?”) and Daniel Berger (“He is the greatest to ever play, so to see him out here after such a devastating injury, it’s great for the game.”).
As for what Woods thought of his own chances? It’s Tiger Woods. Safe to say he doesn’t lack for self-belief.
“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 during Tuesday’s press conference. “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.”
The hills will be an issue. The competition will be, too, and the course, and the confounding sport of golf itself. For now, it’s all good. Woods is exceeding expectations. Come Thursday, he’ll have two new playing partners: Joaquin Niemann and Louis Oosthuizen. We won’t have to rely on their testimony to get a full update on Woods. We’ll see every one of his shots — and scores — and determine for ourselves.