AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last time there was this much buzz about a golfer returning to play at the Masters was … well, yeah, it was when Tiger Woods returned in 2010 after his unfortunate detour onto the covers of more or less every supermarket tabloid in the world.
Before that, though, it was the return of Bobby Jones himself.
The big story of the first Masters in 1934 was that Jones – the Masters Tournament founder who had retired from golf in 1930 after the tickertape parade he was given for winning the Grand Slam – announced he would actually play. Jones returning after four years wasn’t just the big story. He was the only story. His return was the only reason that the biggest sportswriters of the time stopped in Augusta on their way north from spring training.
This time around, Woods’ layoff was only two months, not four years. But the mystery of the layoff, the secrecy of his sun-up-to-sundown woodshedding to right his game, the hunger to have a riveting Tiger Woods at the top of the golf world again … all of it has made his return to golf crush every other story at the Masters.
“I think everyone is just curious to see how he comes back,” says Rory McIlroy, who has his own compelling story. “As a golf fan, I’m sort of interested.”
“I know as much as anybody,” says Phil Mickelson, who has his own compelling story. “And I’m as curious too.”
“It’s been a dream of mine to be in contention with Tiger Woods in a major championship and at Augusta,” says Jordan Spieth who, yes, has his own compelling story too.
What can we realistically expect from Woods this week? That’s the fun and confusing part: There’s absolutely no way to know. The last time we saw Woods, he was walking off the golf course in San Diego and griping that his glutes would not activate. He seemed to be in some pain. And his game seemed to be in shambles. In Phoenix a week earlier, he had shot 82 and chipped so poorly that other players were rubbing their eyes in disbelief. He was playing poorly again before his unactivated glutes sent him back to Florida to endure intense daily remedial sessions of golf basics.
“I worked my ass off,” Woods says. “That’s the easiest way to describe it … People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again.”
Many are expecting Woods to struggle, but it should be said that Woods’ contagious confidence – along with a good practice round on Monday – has some people entertaining the possibility that Woods could do something special this week. “When you’re talking about a world-class golfer, you just don’t know,” says 2013 champion Adam Scott. “I’m sure he has high hopes. His level of comfort around this golf course must be extremely high. … With Tiger, anything’s possible.”
Adam Scott is a great example of just how much of a shadow Woods is casting over the Masters this year: Have you even heard his name? Scott says he is enjoying flying low and relatively unnoticed. In years past, he has had to endure being the top story going into a Masters before. For several years, Scott had the awkward title as the best golfer to never win a major championship. That title has always been a magnet for pre-tournament stories.
This time around, the player who probably should receive the heaviest “When will he finally win a major?” scrutiny is Rickie Fowler, who last year became only the third player (after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods) to finish top five in all four major championships in a year. Unlike Nicklaus and Woods, Fowler did not actually win any of them. You would expect the pressure on Fowler to be intense, but with so much focus on Woods, though, Fowler has been all but invisible this week.
“I don’t care if I’m the favorite or not or if the odds are with me or against me,” Fowler says. “I’m going to go out there and try to win myself a major.”
There has been similar indifference toward a collection of talented Americans – led by the world’s No. 4-ranked player, Jordan Spieth, along with Dustin Johnson (No. 7), Jimmy Walker (No. 10), J.B. Holmes (No. 12) and Patrick Reed (No. 15) – who have been playing superbly of late. None of them have won a major championship yet.
The most captivating of those players is Spieth, who has a victory and two second-place finishes in his last three tournaments. He’s probably playing better than anybody coming into the tournament. He also has some unfinished business here; he led the Masters by two shots on Sunday last year and then was passed by Bubba Watson. He finished as the youngest runner-up in Masters history but that was little consolation.
“I guess the hardest lesson I took from last year was that I had an opportunity to make a dream come true,” he says. “I had it in my hands. And then I was just a little anxious. You can make the excuse that as a first-timer and as, whatever, 20 years old, that’s likely to happen. But in my mind, I was playing the best … and I didn’t quite close it out.”
Even Phil Mickelson is generally being ignored this week; and Mickelson has been a reliable headline-making machine for two decades. He is a three-time Masters winner, and last week in Houston he actually showed a few signs of life by playing well in his first couple of rounds. Mickelson has had just one top-10 finish in the last year and a half, but it was when he finished second at the PGA Championship last year; big tournaments still seem to bring out his best. He turns 45 in June, but it’s Augusta, and it’s April, and this has been Mickelson’s favorite time and place.
“I think driving down Magnolia Lane is rejuvenating,” Mickelson says. “It gives me new energy. … The thing about Augusta is that, for me personally, I don’t feel like I have to be perfect. So it relaxes me. Even though I may not have my best stuff on any given day, I still feel like I can shoot in the 60s.”
And after all of that, yes, there’s the guy most people actually expect to win the golf tournament, the world’s No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy. He comes to Augusta having won the last two major championships, and he looks to become just the sixth player – after Woods, Gary Player, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen – to win the career Grand Slam. If he does win, he sets himself up to become the second golfer (after you know who) to win the four modern major championships consecutively.
And even McIlroy’s amazing quest is being swamped by the Tiger Woods story.
“I don’t feel any less or any more pressure because he’s here,” McIlroy says of Woods. “You know, it’s great that he’s here. Does it give people something else to talk about? Yes. But I’m not necessarily listening to anything that anyone is saying. So it doesn’t really make a difference to me.”
McIlroy’s history at Augusta is a tortured one. In 2011, he led the Masters by four shots entering the final day, and then he had a nightmarish back nine that began on No. 10 when he pulled his drive into an area many longtime Masters observers did not even know existed. He shot 80 that day and fell to 15th place. He then finished 40th the next year, 25th the next, and last year he was eighth. But even that top-10 finish was disappointing. McIlroy was even par on the par 5s, where a player of his length and talent should dominate.
“I’ve been thinking about getting the eagle too much,” he says. “If I can just play the par 5s a little better …
“If you’re looking at the [major championship] courses, this is the one that should set up best for me with my ball flight … If I play the way I know I can around here and just have a good week on the greens, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have a good chance.”
So many storylines, and still the only one that seems to matter, at least for now, is Tiger Woods. Well, there’s a grand Masters history of such overshadowing. You might note that the first player to win the Masters was a Midwesterner named Horton Smith. He made a long birdie putt on the 17th hole to edge Craig Wood. Just about every paper in the country, though, led with the fact that Bobby Jones finished 13th. One columnist wrote that the only significant thing to come out of the tournament was just how much more fun professional golf was with Bobby Jones playing.
If Tiger Woods finishes 13th, or anything even close, you can expect more of the same.