AUGUSTA, Ga. – Unable to see much of anything for four hours, this was their best chance to catch a glimpse. They stood shoulder to shoulder, four deep, waiting patiently for Tiger Woods.
The 86th Masters was being decided out on the third hole, with the final group of Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Smith. But everyone’s attention – the security guards, the green jackets, the media members, the patrons – seemed focused on the third door of the scoring building, where Woods was dissecting his first official tournament in 17 months, his first major since his life was upended, his body was broken and his career was threatened, again.
He finally emerged, each step accompanied by a grimace. While climbing the stairs near the clubhouse, he braced himself on the railing for support. The patrons cheered his arrival at the interview podium, just as they had his arrival to each tee and green all day.
There was nowhere Woods would rather be in such obvious discomfort.
“Thank you, Tiger!” someone yelled.
Woods didn’t rush back, too soon, for the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, where he won in 2007, when he was 31, his body strong and his future limitless.
He didn’t accelerate his recovery for the U.S. Open at Brookline, where in 1999 he was part of his only victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team.
He didn’t even delay his comeback start for the Old Course at St. Andrews, where more than two decades ago he completed the career Grand Slam and became – officially, at least – a player for the ages.
No, he pushed himself to the brink, navigated this undulating terrain and completed this major marathon because we were here at Augusta National, because of the personal significance of this hallowed place. Because Woods was born in 1975, the same year Lee Elder became the first Black man to play in the Masters. Because this was the 25-year anniversary of his landscape-altering victory. Because this tournament has brought he and his family so much joy, at a stage in his life and career when seemingly all he has experienced lately is the dark spiral of pain.
And this Masters delivered heavy doses of that, too. Woods expected it. He braced for it. He got into a head space and lived with it. Each morning and night, his phalanx of medical experts waited for him with chicken wire, duct tape and super glue, ready to piece him together again, if only for a few hours.
“I’m good at breaking it,” he said, “and they’re good at fixing it.”
And there’ll be plenty to repair after his eight days in Augusta. Officially a “game-time decision,” he played three of the four days leading up to the first round and never suffered any physical setbacks. In Thursday’s opening round, he gutted out a 1-under 71, a remarkable score given the circumstances. He flushed it Friday and rallied to stay inside the cut line when Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and a few other headliners jetted home early.
But by the weekend, it was clear there was nothing else for Woods to give. Miserable in whipping winds and cold temperatures, his third-round 78 was the highest score of his Masters career, a day lowlighted by his five three-putts or worse. He labored to climb out of bunkers. He couldn't crouch to read putts. He used his driver as a cane. He was breaking down, in real time, and he still had 18 holes to go.
Asked about his pain levels, he simply smiled. “Uh-huh,” he said.
Over the course of his unparalleled career and his complicated life, Woods has been many things.
Feared and revered.
Humbled and inspired.
But what unfolded here at Augusta National, particularly on Sunday, was something altogether different.
He was respected.
The thousands of patrons ringing each hole cheered not for his excellence, but for his effort.
They gave him a standing ovation not for his scores, but for his sacrifice.
“We’re just grateful to see him at all,” one fan said.
Weekend 78s gave Woods a four-round total of 13-over 301 – easily the worst of his legendary career here – but that mattered little.
Woods showed us that the fight never left him, even with a rushed timeline, even with a Home Depot full of pins, screws, plates and rods in his leg. He showed us that it’s satisfying to prove others wrong, but that it’s even more rewarding to prove it to yourself.
“I think it was a positive,” he said of the week, “and I’ve got some work to do and I’m looking forward to it.”
Finishing this Masters upright won’t rate as an all-timer, won't supersede the numbers most closely associated with him: 15 and 82. It wasn’t even his most memorable performance here: It didn’t usher in a new era like the ’97 Masters. It wasn’t a monument to his greatness like the ’01 Masters. It didn’t have the goosebumps finish like the ’19 Masters. But more than his blowout victories or his highlight-reel moments or his myriad comebacks, this 2022 Masters was a reflection of his truest golfing self: tough, determined, stubborn as hell.
He was asked: Was this one of your greatest achievements, given the circumstances?
“For not winning an event, yes,” he said. “Yes, without a doubt.”
An immensely private person, Woods has offered few details of what he has endured over the past 14 months, but he has at least tried to let us in. We still don’t know what it’s like to hear that amputation is an option. We haven’t seen the grisly images of his shattered leg. We weren’t there for his tortuous three months in a hospital bed. We didn’t take one agonizing step and deem it progress.
“The people who are close to me understand,” he said. “They’ve seen it.”
And they were some of the dozen or so people who wore red shirts and black pants, Tiger Colors, on a perfect Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, shuffling along the pine straw like a colony of ants. They were some of the people who gathered near the rope line on the 14th hole and clapped in unison, urging him on, like a marathoner a few miles shy of the finish line. And they were some of the people who were waiting for him after the round, near the giant oak tree outside the clubhouse. Woods didn’t even glance in their direction as he chugged toward the scoring building, but he still felt their presence and support.
“It’s been a tough road,” he said, “but it’s one that I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to be able to grind through. A lot of different things could have happened, but in 14 months, I’m able to tee it up and play in the Masters.”
And his prevailing sentiment now?
“Thankful,” he said. “I keep saying it, but I am. I really am. I truly am. Just to get to this point.”
Woods climbed down from the podium to another round of cheers and trudged up the hill to greet his family, holding tight his mother, Tida, and his daughter Sam, who was dressed in red leggings and a black pullover. He placed a hand on son Charlie's shoulder and guided him toward the clubhouse.
It was 3:25 p.m., and the final groups at the Masters were just getting underway. The patrons were filing toward the exit. The reporters and cameramen were gone. The security guards were milling around – and then all of a sudden, they snapped to attention as Woods shuffled away from the Champions Locker Room and toward a gray Mercedes SUV, courtesy car No. 29, the trunk already open.
His shoes were untied. With no reason to hide his pain anymore, his limp was more pronounced. But there in the parking lot, he relished an improbable achievement, at the place where he wanted – no, needed – to come back. He bear-hugged his longtime agent, Mark Steinberg. He gently wrapped a hand around Rob McNamara’s waist. He leaned on caddie Joe LaCava and, with no weight on his rebuilt right leg, whispered something in his ear.
They’d done it together, with Woods swallowing the pain for personal pride. And he will make sure that they do it again, somehow.