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A hard walk roiled: For Tiger Woods, Masters is a certain kind of hike

Tiger Woods during Wednesday's practice round. Said Brooks Koepka on the five-time champion walking Augusta National on his surgically repaired leg: “It’s a major championship, it’s Augusta. Doesn’t matter how much pain you’re in, you figure out a way. He’ll figure out a way.” (Curtis Compton/AP)

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sitting three-plus hours southeast of both the highest point in Georgia (Brasstown Bald) and the base of the Appalachian Trail (Springer Mountain), Augusta National Golf Club doesn’t get much buzz for its topography. Yet those casual observers who can name only one professional golfer might get some sense of that aspect of this place because of how on undulating earth that golfer will walk the place Thursday and Friday — and perhaps into the weekend.

The idea of Tiger Woods playing this 86th Masters might seem herculean enough given the frightening car crash he endured in February 2021, but his bid to walk it here has highlighted the toughness of walking it here, a fact of the course to add to the towering pines and steroidal azaleas.

Among all the details for which Augusta National is known to those who play it in Masters after Masters, the gruel of the place sits somewhere on the list, such as when Justin Thomas called it the toughest stroll of the tour calendar.

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It might not be Brasstown Bald around here, but it’s not flatland, either.

“Well, in an ideal world,” said 48-year-old Lee Westwood, about to play in his 21st Masters, “you wouldn’t want to come back at this golf course. You’d want somewhere a bit flatter, maybe a little bit shorter. This is a long, hilly test of stamina now, and if you haven’t played, then it just makes it a little bit harder.

“But he’s a fit guy, Tiger, so I wouldn’t envisage any problems. . . . In an ideal world, if you talked to a doctor or a physio or someone who really knew what they were talking about, they wouldn’t go for a hilly test like this, but he’s probably been playing a flat course down in Florida. He’s probably walked around his home course a few times. At some point he’s got to test it out, hasn’t he?”

As an emblem of the era of course-lengthening to match all the shot-lengthening wreaked by club technology, Woods has won five Masters at lengthening lengths: at 6,925 yards (1997), at 6,985 (2001), at 7,270 (2002), at 7,290 (2005) and at 7,475 (2019). Here, with new stretches at Nos. 11 and 15, comes 7,510. “We’re used to that,” 2013 champion Adam Scott said. “Everywhere we go, it gets a little longer.”

They’re used to that, but Woods isn’t used to playing or this much walking, with this his first competitive tournament since the Masters of November 2020. Review his news conference from 20 years ago before the 2002 Masters, at 26, and his concerns about course-lengthening sound downright chirpy.

“I used to be able to [watch Masters historical videos to learn course nuances],” he said then, “because the golf course never changed that much. In the last three or four years, they have changed it quite a bit. You can’t quite look at the holes on TV the way you used to be able to and pick apart some of your green reads.”

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In his news conference here Tuesday, he noted the “tough, tough year and a lot of stuff that I had to deal with that I don’t wish on anyone,” the pain “each and every day,” the fact he “never left the hospital bed even to see my living room for three months.” He said: “This is normally not an easy walk to begin with. Now given the conditions my leg is in, it gets even more difficult.”

He’s even in new shoes, newsworthy for that rare person whose shoes make news. “Well, I have limited mobility now,” he said. “Just with the rods and pins and screws that are in my leg, I needed something different, something that allowed me to be more stable. That’s what I’ve gone to.”

Scowling beneath all of that reality, there’s the course.

“I would say probably 20, 30 years ago [the walk] wasn’t as bad because you would just — you know, I think of a hole like number 6 to number 7, you’d get done with number 6 and walk right there to number 7 tee,” Thomas said. “Or number 8, you get done at number 7, you go right there to number 8 tee; number 9, same type of thing. But now due to lengthening the golf course, it’s now you get done with the hole, you walk back 60, 70 yards back to the tee, and then you walk right back again. You add that along with some of the craziest undulation and terrain of any course we’ll play all year, it produces some pretty tired, sore legs at the end of the week.”

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“I had to get shot up just to play last year,” said 31-year-old Brooks Koepka, the four-time major champion whose greatness has met challenge at the wrist, knee and hip. “It’s difficult enough to walk [here], and I mean, the hours before to the hours after, it was some of the longest days. … [Woods’s injury] was a lot worse than mine, so I’m not trying to compare it. I just know it’s difficult walking this place when you don’t have the same body parts you used to.”

But then: “It’s a major championship. It’s Augusta. Doesn’t matter how much pain you’re in — you figure out a way. He’ll figure out a way.”

That figuring should provide an edifying look at two deeply familiar icons: Woods himself and Augusta National. Asked about his greatest concern among the uphill, the downhill and the sidehill, Woods said, “All.”

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