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At the Masters, Tiger Woods walks in two worlds: Yarn-spinning legend and defending champ

Tiger Woods on his appearance this week at the Masters: “Do I expect to contend? Yes, I do.” (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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AUGUSTA, Ga. — He is both a legend who can sit in a rocking chair at Augusta National Golf Club telling stories about late icons no longer with us and the defending champion of the Masters. Tiger Woods simultaneously walks in both worlds. His surgically repaired body limits him. His unparalleled mind opens all possibilities. A quarter-century after his first Masters, he is here both as a contender and a curiosity who conjures the simplest question: Can he do it one more time?

“Do I expect to contend?” Woods said Tuesday. “Yes, I do.”

Simple and succinct, as almost all of his answers have been for 25 years.

What we have here with Woods, though, is a leading man in transition, and it’s impossible to pin down where he is on his own arc. He began his Tuesday news conference at Augusta recalling two events. The first was last year’s victory, his fifth Masters title and 15th major, a memory at which he teared up — pretournament moistness that would have been unimaginable from the autotron of most of the 2000s. The second was a joyful recounting of his debut here as a 19-year-old Stanford freshman — “a little punk college student,” he said — playing a practice round with none other than Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, 10 green jackets between them.

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“We’re playing for some skins, and I didn’t have any cash in my pocket,” Woods said.

Palmer, by Woods’s retelling, made a putt on 18 to swipe up all the cash. The empty pockets quickly became a nonissue because the two legends — the sport’s leading figures in the 40 years before Woods arrived — asked him to join them in the tournament’s annual par-3 contest. They seemed to know what was ahead for him — not in the coming hours, but in the coming decades.

“Well, I’m scheduled to go later,” Woods told them.

“Hey,” they responded. “Just follow us.”

And they played the par-3 event together.

“That was one of the most incredible memories I think that I’ve ever had,” Woods said Tuesday.

It’s such a nice little nugget that helps us remember when this balding father of two who has struggled both mentally and physically — in public, in ways we both do and don’t understand — was nothing more than an exuberant kid who knew nothing but wearing a perma-smile and ripping at the golf ball at his feet. Recalling it Tuesday seemed so natural, and Woods chuckled at the memory.

But let’s be clear that sharing such a tale didn’t always seem as though it would be part of Woods’s future. Part of the appeal of Nicklaus and Palmer long after their primes had passed was their ability to tell the tales of times gone by. Palmer has died, but Nicklaus carries it to this day. Their annual tournaments — Nicklaus’s outside his hometown of Columbus, Ohio; Palmer’s outside his home of Orlando — were a combination of competition and yarn-spinning. When the game’s most prominent figures can draw on their experiences — be it in course strategy or amusing anecdote — it adds a richness and depth that the sport needs.

Yet can Woods, as the defending champion here, truly embrace that ceremonial role? Not yet, of course. The memory of the 2019 tournament, even if the coronavirus pandemic has caused this to be the longest wait between Masters ever, isn’t distant. It’s fresh. And it matters, because whatever his age (44) and the state of his current game (six starts since golf returned from its pandemic pause, zero top-30 finishes), the last time these guys teed it up in competition here, no one was better than Woods. He produced a performance that resonates still, 19 months later.

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“I thought that it was one of the greatest feats in the history of sports,” said Phil Mickelson, Woods’s longtime rival and a winner of three green jackets himself. “ … I was really happy for him and happy to see him do that, and also I think it provides a little bit of inspiration for a lot of us.”

So, then, maybe he’ll inspire again. Woods pointed out that Augusta offers opportunities to old-timers that a tournament such as the U.S. Open — so torturous, played on different venues every year — just doesn’t. Nicklaus won his last Masters at 46, but he also tied for sixth in 1998, when he was 58. Fred Couples, the 1992 champ, led after 18 holes in 2010, when he was 50, and was tied for the lead after 36 holes two years later, when he was 52. Bernhard Langer sat tied for third in 2016 with just one round to play, and he was 58. Woods, younger than them all, draws from that past.

“It can be done,” Woods said. “This is a golf course in which having an understanding of how to play and where to miss it and how to hit the shots around here — it helps.”

But it’s also impossible to ignore how much of what Woods has produced seems more history than high-def. Jon Rahm is a 26-year-old Spaniard who has already been ranked No. 1 in the world and comes here brimming with confidence based on his top-10 finishes in the previous two Masters. On Tuesday, he considered his first Masters memories.

“My earliest recollection of the event was Tiger’s chip-in in 2005,” Rahm said. “I was 10 years old at that time.”

And Woods was 29 when he famously chipped in from over the 16th green, the birdie that propelled him to his fourth Masters and ninth major. Fifteen years on, he has fully transitioned from prodigy to sage. He and others — Mickelson and Couples among them — have at their fingertips secrets that are revealed after playing hundreds of rounds on this course. Justin Thomas, a 27-year-old former world No. 1, has developed a Masters routine that involves playing a practice round with Woods and Couples. It’s not for status. It’s for knowledge.

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“I follow everywhere they go,” Thomas said Tuesday. “Tiger is a little — I shouldn’t say a little; Tiger is less willing to give me information than Freddy is. I know if I ask Freddy, he’ll answer, whereas Tiger this week probably won’t answer.”

Which means he’s still competitive, right? Woods said he shares with amateurs his tale of his first hole ever here, when he putted clear off the first green, then got up-and-down to save bogey. His point: Whatever happens, we’ve all been there. But there are limits.

“We share tidbits … as past champions,” Woods said. “But also, we keep a few things, too.”

Nineteen months ago, when he tapped in for a final bogey and a one-shot win, among the things he couldn’t keep were his emotions in check. His daughter, Sam, and son, Charlie, were there greenside, and his embrace of them couldn’t help but be compared with his hug of his father, Earl, 22 years earlier, when he took his first Masters and first major at 21. That both still resonate was obvious on his face and in his words Tuesday.

“To come full circle from being with my dad and seeing my son there and the same embrace,” he said, “22 years apart, pretty good bookends.”

Bookends would indicate the pursuit of another is over. Indeed, maybe he’ll never win here again. But the truth is the defending Masters champion is in obvious transition. The week ahead will help us all learn where he is on that arc — as a threat to win the tournament or as a teller of tales.