Woods faces big challenge at Augusta


Tiger Woods reacts as he putts on the seventh hole during the practice round for the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday in Augusta, Ga.

Tribune Sports

AUGUSTA, Ga. — What Tiger Woods did in 2019, winning a fifth green jacket in his comeback from major back surgery, ranks as maybe the most remarkable moment in a career littered with remarkable moments.

But what he did last year at the Augusta National Golf Club, managing to make the cut just 14 months after a horrific car accident that nearly cost him his life, might be equally as remarkable.

The only thing missing was the victory. Or, as he likes to call it, the “W.”

“I didn’t win the tournament, but for me to be able to come back and play was a small victory in itself,” Woods said. “Yeah, I still would have liked to have gotten the W, but I didn’t. But I think I got my own smaller version of that, to be able to come back and just be able to play.”

Woods is back for his 25th appearance at the Masters, four years removed from one of golf’s most stirring victories, but he’s not sure “how many more I have in me.” Unlike last year, when he played for the first time since his car accident in February 2021, Woods has one tournament — a made cut at the Genesis Invitational — under his belt.

And he has more stamina and feels better about his game than a year ago, when he managed to make the cut before he wore down with a pair of 78s on the weekend.

“I think my game is better than it was last year at this particular time; I think my endurance is better,” Woods said on Tuesday after a nine-hole practice round with Fred Couples and Justin Thomas.. “But it aches a little bit more than it did last year just because at that particular time when I came back, I really had not pushed it that often.

“I just have to be cognizant of how much I can push it. I can hit a lot of shots, but the difficulty for me is going to be the walking going forward. It is what it is. I wish it could be easier.”

But, oh, those hills and slopes at Augusta National.

Woods was able to endure 36 holes last year, when he shot 71-74 and made the cut for the 22nd consecutive time since turning professional in 1997. But by the time rain, wind and chilly temperatures arrived for Saturday’s third round, he was merely trying to survive.

He is already aware of the rainy weather forecast for this week’s tournament. And he did not utter his usual refrain that he only enters tournament with the belief he can win.

“You know, if he didn’t have to walk up these hills and have all of that, I’d say he’d be one of the favorites,” Rory McIroy said after playing a practice round with the four-time Masters champion on Monday. “I mean, he’s got all of the shots. It’s just that physical limitation of walking 72 holes, especially on a golf course as hilly as this.”

“I don’t know how much better it’s ever going to get,” added Couples, the 1992 Masters champion who is Woods’ usual playing partner for practice rounds. “If he can get better where he can play 12 times, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But he’s strong enough to hit it a mile. He’s not hitting it as far as Rory. I don’t think many people are. But he’s hitting it really strong and solid, and he looks good.”

In his only PGA Tour appearance this year, Woods made the cut and finished tied for 45th in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, a course with similar hilly challenges. He even posted his lowest score of the tournament (67) in the third round en route to finishing at 1-under 283.

Last year, he came to Augusta with no tournament prep since his car accident, hoping merely to make the cut. He also made the cut in the PGA Championship, his second event of the year, but withdrew after a third-round 79. After skipping the U.S. Open, he shot 78-75 and missed the cut at the British Open at St. Andrews.

He sounds a little more hopeful this time.

“My mobility, it’s not where I would like it, but, as I sit here, I’ve said to you guys before, I’m very lucky to have this leg; it’s mine,” Woods said. “Yes, it had been altered and there’s some hardware in there, but it’s still mine. It has been tough and will always be tough. The ability and endurance of what my leg will do going forward will never be the same. I understand that.

“That’s why I can’t prepare and play as many tournaments as I like, but that’s my future, and that’s OK. I’m OK with that.”

Expecting a repeat of 2019, when he overtook Francesco Molinari and outlasted Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson to finish at 13-under 275 for his 15th major victory, isn’t very likely.

“I don’t have the physical tournaments under my belt,” Woods said. “I haven’t played that much, no. But if there’s any one golf course that I can come back, like I did last year, it’s here, just because I know the golf course. And hopefully it will help me this week.”