AUGUSTA, GA. — The first tee box at Augusta National Golf Club is all but in the shadow of the massive oak tree that guards one side of the clubhouse, and at any given minute in the days leading up to the Masters it is awash in people — golf shirts and golf hats, sunglasses and sundresses, equal parts seeing and being seen. Just one person can make that mass of humanity stop on a collective heel and pivot as one.
“There’s Tiger,” one man all but yelped Tuesday. “There’s Tiger! There’sTigerThere’sTigerThere’sTiger!”
As he arrives at his 19th Masters, Tiger Woods may or may not be the changed man amateur pop psychologists have cast him as. His circumstances, though, have certainly altered since he last won a Masters, all those eight years ago. He has gone from a seemingly permanent ranking as No. 1 in the world, fallen to 58th, and risen all the way up again. He has rebuilt his left knee and his swing, and some would say his reputation as well.
So he is here in a position both foreign and familiar — as the world No. 1, as the prohibitive favorite to win the 77th edition of this event, as the one player who can make a group of baked-in-the-sun fans slide down the hill of the first fairway, ready to follow him as long as he plays, precisely the scene just before 3 p.m. Tuesday. But he is also here having been weathered by travails both personal and professional, and he professes that makes a difference.
“Life is all about having a balance, and trying to find equilibrium, and not getting things one way or the other,” he said before he practiced Tuesday. “And I feel very balanced.”
Which is not, necessarily, meant to give a glimpse of how he once felt, back when he was winning Masters, which he did four times in his 20s, none since he turned 30. He is 37 now, and eight years removed from that last green jacket. Tell the 29-year-old Woods — a newlywed, not yet a father — that he would have gone this long without another?
“I wouldn’t have been happy with that,” he said.
Consider, though, the Masters since. From 2006 to ’08, he finished tied for third, tied for second, and second alone, respectively. Then, everything changed. In 2009, he arrived here still coming off the knee surgery that cost him the second half of 2008, and tied for sixth. In 2010, he arrived with the salacious details of his rampant infidelity still fresh in the public’s mind, and he hadn’t hit a competitive shot all season. He somehow tied for fourth. In 2011, he was divorced, and in the throes of the only true slump of his career — winless for 17 months — and again tied for fourth.
And last year, with expectations beginning to ratchet back up because he won his most recent tournament before the Masters, he turned in his worst performance as a pro at Augusta, a tie for 40th in which he was 5 over par, experiencing a wholly different sensation: irrelevance.
Now, he said he has found joy in a relationship with gold medal-winning skier Lindsey Vonn. And with wins at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill, he has the field on notice.
“Even at times where he has not played his best, you know what he’s capable of, and so you’re always looking at his score,” three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson said. “You’re always worried about him making that big run the way he’s always done throughout his career.
“And now that he’s doing it and winning tournaments in such a dominating fashion, it does have the feel of what we expect to see from Tiger.”
As Woods has gone through his major drought — there have been 18 such events since he won his 14th and most recent, the 2008 U.S. Open — others have filled the void. Rory McIlroy was just 18 when Woods beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win that Open, and Woods was still an idol. Now, he is a peer. But even as McIlroy has won two majors and risen, for a time, to be No. 1 in the world, there is another acknowledgement that Woods’s spot in the golf hierarchy has been restored: His foes revere his record, and no one rushes to embrace him as a rival.
“He’s got 77 PGA Tour events [that he’s won]; I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors; I’ve got two,” McIlroy said. “If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
There is one character in the game, though, who can sit back and assess Woods from afar, and have his word still carry weight. For years, Woods’s presence here brought comparisons to Jack Nicklaus, the owner of a record six Masters championships, of a record 18 majors. When Nicklaus was 37, he had won 14 of those titles — precisely the number at which Woods sits now.
“I’ve said it before: I expect him to break my record,” Nicklaus reiterated Tuesday. “I think he’s just too talented, and too driven and too focused.”
Nicklaus pointed out that, after he won three Masters from 1963 to ’66, he went five years without a green jacket before winning again in 1972. With the personal strife behind him, with his health restored, this lull shouldn’t prevent Woods from making a run.
“I don’t think it’s any big deal,” Nicklaus said. “I’m sure he does.”
Perhaps the strongest indication that Woods is still his old self — pursuit of balance and equilibrium put aside — is that he professed Tuesday to have the same desire to beat Nicklaus’s record as he did when he won his first major, back in 1997, when he was 21.
“I would like to be able to get to that point,” he said. “It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there’s plenty of opportunities for me.”
The next one begins Thursday. As he hit balls on the range Tuesday, joking with Fred Couples and chatting with Jason Dufner, his place in the game seemed restored. “I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” he said. And maybe, just maybe, his life as well.