AUGUSTA, Ga. — The landmark athletic performance that had the rare distinction of being an important societal event came a full 25 years ago now. Tiger Woods should be spending this week celebrating the silver anniversary of his first Masters victory, kicking back and telling some stories, looking back rather than forward.
But as much change as that triumph represented — a man of color winning at a place that not so long ago banned people who looked like him — the obsession around his arrival here this week shows how irreplaceable he remains. A quarter-century on, the discussion around any tournament — be it the Masters or the 3M Open or anything in between — begins with this: Is Tiger playing?
He is this week, and that still matters more than any other factor — more than Rory McIlroy’s now-annual pursuit of the career grand slam, more than Phil Mickelson’s first absence since 1994, more than whether Bryson DeChambeau can piece a broken body back together enough to both confound and contend. The collective reaction from the general public about any and all of those stars: hmm.
When Woods shows up, tournaments are defined by his presence. When he can’t play, they are defined by his absence. It’s not just that golf is binary. It’s that golf has been binary for more than a generation.
“We need him,” said Brooks Koepka, a four-time major winner. “The fans need him. All that stuff.”
All that stuff is nothing less than what defines a sport. That puts Woods in a unique position on the world athletic landscape. Tom Brady retired for a month, and the NFL could comfortably withstand it as little more than a noteworthy transaction because Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and a slew of other stars make the league unassailable. Eliminate LeBron James, and the NBA still has Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant and more. For a decade, Mike Trout has been the best baseball player on the planet; he could walk the streets here this week unbothered.
Roger Federer is the men’s tennis player who might most understand Woods’s standing. Unless it’s Novak Djokovic. Or Rafael Nadal. Maybe Serena Williams is the most apt example — though in the early part of her career older sister Venus was a better player and as big a draw, and by now her most recent grand slam title is five years old.
Tiger endures. And not just because of celebrity and history but because of possibility. He knows well that he hasn’t played a truly competitive professional golf event since the pandemic-delayed November Masters of 2020 and that since then he suffered injuries in a single-car crash that nearly required his leg to be amputated.
So there is a certain level of athletic arrogance, knowing he has what he calls “hardware” holding his right leg together, when he says, “I don’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it.” But it is arrogance that can’t be met with a roll of the eyes because there are 25 years of evidence to prove that he’s right. That was true when he won the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg that could barely hold up under the violence of his swing. That was true when he won the 2019 Masters following five back surgeries and sustained absences. He still draws the eye because he repeatedly and relentlessly shows that he deserves it.
“I’ve had to endure pain before,” Woods said Tuesday. “This is different, obviously. This is a lot more traumatic.”
Which only makes it a lot more dramatic. No one on the grounds here this week could argue differently. Monday, Woods played a nine-hole practice round with Justin Thomas and Fred Couples. Before they teed off, DeChambeau was on the practice range — clear on the other side of the clubhouse.
“We could hear the loud roar when he came out of the clubhouse up to that first tee,” DeChambeau said.
McIlroy was on the ninth green, adjacent to the first tee, with fellow Irishmen Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington and Seamus Power when Woods arrived to start.
“It was a mass exodus from the ninth green to the first tee,” McIlroy said, “and then the back nine was lovely and quiet.”
Thomas, who has been among the game’s top players for five years now, had a couple of buddies text him photos of the galleries.
“That’s probably more people that have ever watched me play a round at Augusta National,” Thomas said, “and they weren’t there to watch me.”
“I’ve never seen a mass this big, even on a Sunday in contention,” said Jon Rahm, the betting favorite.
There is a curiosity factor to Woods’s appearance here this week, and maybe that contributed to those throngs. The bet is only slightly. He hasn’t been through a debilitating car wreck in the past, but he has arrived at Augusta with similar and varied intrigue. In 2009, he was coming off that leg injury that caused him to miss the final two majors the previous season. In 2010, the Masters was his first tournament back after he put himself in exile following revelations of rampant infidelity that led to public embarrassment and the dissolution of his marriage.
In 2018, he hadn’t so much as teed it up at a major in three years. The following year, he won the darn thing.
All of that makes the attention he is receiving here both remarkable and rote. There’s an understanding among the rest of the field that if Woods has set foot on the grounds, if he puts his peg in the turf Thursday morning, he has a singular intent.
“He’s not coming to wave at the crowds,” said Harrington, who, at 50, has moved past the time when he duels with Woods for major titles. “He’s coming to try and win the tournament.”
That would be absurd on the face of it, if it weren’t completely reasonable. Tiger Woods isn’t here to look back on a singular moment a quarter-century in his past, because he steadfastly wants to be part of the sport’s present rather than his past. He’s here to look forward to Thursday, the buzz that it will create and the possibility it represents.
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