AUGUSTA, Ga. – Time stands still at Augusta National.
Each year, on cue, the azaleas bloom, the patrons gather and the hills pop with emerald green. And despite injuries, indifferent play and an inexplicable short-game swoon in recent years, the clock also appeared turned back for Tiger Woods on Monday, as he turned in the kind of round one would expect from the four-time Masters champion.
In a relaxed practice round, Woods played the outward loop in a loosely scored 3 under par, although counting up a score seemed to take a backseat to creating some momentum heading into his first event since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open with a tight back in February.
It was vintage Tiger. A drive blown almost into the ninth fairway at the first followed by an approach shot to 3 feet for birdie. A deft chip (that’s right, deft chip) to a foot at the third for another. A wedge that spun to 3 feet at the seventh for birdie.
Even Woods’ playing partner, Mark O’Meara, was a familiar face from the past.
For a time, O’Meara and Woods were inseparable on the PGA Tour. But the two grew apart, O’Meara graduated to the Champions Tour, Woods into a tightly confined circle of confidants.
But on Monday it was like old times with Woods smiling, and giving his older friend plenty of grief, like at the fourth when O’Meara said he hit his Sunday best hybrid to 9 1/2 feet only to have Woods carve an iron 2 feet closer to the hole.
“Some things never change,” Woods smiled.
The round, the conversation, the release appeared to be exactly what Woods needed. After weeks of speculation, the former world No. 1 announced last Friday he would return to golf this week. Early on Monday he texted O’Meara asking if he’d already played.
“I told him, if you want to play a couple of holes that’d be great,” O’Meara said.
The two embraced on the sprawling Augusta National practice range at about 3:30 p.m. ET. After an extended session in the short-game area (Woods hit 69 mostly solid chips) the two headed out into a warm afternoon.
The duo laughed and talked for more than two hours, mostly – according to O’Meara – reconnecting after a lengthy absence.
“He hasn’t had a normal 39 years,” O’Meara said. “To be a little off and struggle a little bit, sometimes in life it’s good to struggle.”
All told, Woods played 11 holes, circling down the 10th and then back up the 18th hole under darkening skies, and walked away from his first public display of golf in eight weeks surprisingly confident.
“It’s progression. I felt like I had to get my game into a spot where I could compete to win a golf tournament and it’s finally there,” Woods said.
O’Meara was even more confident following his nine holes with Woods: “He didn’t look too rusty and hit a lot of real quality shots out there,” he said.
Mostly, however, O’Meara said he wanted to see if he could help Woods find a way out of the short-game woes that led to a missed cut in his only complete start this season, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
“Confidence is a crazy thing in golf and it takes years and years and years to develop confidence,” O’Meara said. “Slowly but surely, confidence will come back.”
That Woods will begin his quest to shore up his confidence on one of the game’s most exacting golf courses, particularly around the greens, is an indication that he’s at least somewhat hopeful he is closer to that epiphany than when he was at Torrey Pines.
O’Meara and Woods plan to reunite again on Tuesday for another practice round in what will likely be Woods’ final tuneup before show time. Monday’s abbreviated round, particularly the company, seemed to give Woods a sense of calm during what promises to be an extremely intense week.
“I miss [O’Meara]. I miss him out here playing practice rounds,” Woods said. “You forget, I must have played probably a decade of practice rounds at every major with him. Now he’s 58, so he’s almost 60, so we joked about that.”
Whether all this nostalgia leads to a throwback Thursday for Woods remains to be seen, but on Monday at Augusta National it certainly felt like old times.