AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The buzz built quickly as Tiger Woods finished chipping a bag of balls, gave Bubba Watson a fist bump, and headed to the practice tee to hit a handful of easy drives. A few minutes later he emerged from the clubhouse lawn to rapturous applause as thousands of fans crowded around with phones held high trying desperately to get a glimpse of golf history unfolding in front of them.
On a gorgeous day at Augusta National, the most beautiful sight of all might have been seeing Woods standing on the first tee once again with a driver in his hand.
It certainly was to a group of four female University of Virginia golfers who found their way near enough to the tee to get a selfie of sorts with Woods in the distance behind them. They let out a squeal and fans crowded 30 deep around the tee and all the way down the first fairway screamed in delight.
Meanwhile, defending Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama walked by the first tee almost unnoticed. This was Tiger’s day just like this is Tiger’s tournament, and if anyone thought differently they must have been in the merchandise shop buying souvenirs instead.
Yes, it was just Monday. But, aside from the blue shirt Woods was wearing, it sure felt like a Sunday afternoon.
He may be No. 973 in the world but Woods is always No. 1 at Augusta National, where he won his first major 25 years ago and has won four more green jackets since — including an improbable 2019 triumph that only Woods himself could top.
That one was magical. Just teeing off in this one borders on unbelievable.
Still, the questions continue. The slight limp that Woods walked with up the steep hill on the first hole prompted even more.
Will he be there again for an opening tee shot in the Masters on Thursday? Will the latest comeback for the greatest player of his time be the greatest comeback of his career as he continues to mend from a car crash that almost took one of his legs and very well could have cost him his life?
No one outside Woods’ inner circle is letting on. But the odds are looking better every day.
Woods himself called it a “game-time decision” in a weekend tweet that hinted more of “yes” than it did “no.” He played the back nine on Sunday, then came back Monday afternoon for the front nine when fans were allowed onto the course for the first time.
Walking four days straight on a course that’s difficult enough to walk for players with two good legs might be a stretch. But anyone who remembers how Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008 on a bad leg knows enough not to count him out.
And his fellow pros believe he’ll at least give it a try.
“I’d be surprised if it was anyone else that’s ever lived,” Max Homa said Monday. “So, no, I’m not surprised. I am amazed. It is a true testament to his work ethic because we all know what he does on the golf course, how hard he works, and the stories and the legend. “
“It’s a major championship. It’s Augusta,” Brooks Koepka added. “Doesn’t matter how much pain you’re in, you figure out a way. He’ll figure out a way. If anybody can do it, he can.”
That it’s been just a little over 13 months since Woods crashed his SUV in California until he returned to the Masters is, indeed, remarkable. But Woods is a notorious hard worker and this isn’t the first comeback in a career that has been derailed at different times by various injuries and marital issues.
The odds are stacked against him — he’s 80-1 in Las Vegas to win — but the odds on him just getting to this point would have been astronomical after he shattered his leg.
Woods said a few months ago that his shattered right leg looks differently than his left. But the most important thing right now is how his game looks and watching Woods practice before his nine holes on Monday it looked suspiciously like the Woods of old.
Still, the unknowns loom, both for Woods or anyone who is thinking of trying to make some long money with his long odds.
Will he tee off on Thursday? If he does, can he make the cut? Will his leg stand up to four days of walking a golf course that is a lot hillier than it looks on television?
All good questions, though the biggest one has been settled already.
“He’s here, right?” Bryson DeChambeau said. “I guess it’s already a return.”
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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