Around 8:30 a.m. last Tuesday, a Gulfstream G550 jet with registration number N517TW left Stuart, Florida, on a northbound trip. This was the plane of Tiger Woods, who hasn’t played in an individual stroke-play tournament since the car accident that shattered his right leg in February 2021. The Masters Tournament was set to begin in eight days. Was Tiger’s jet headed you-know-where?
Golf Twitter went into its battle stations, tracking the plane as it flew over Jacksonville, descended in altitude upon crossing into Georgia, and circled Augusta before landing. Woods was, indeed, playing a practice round at Augusta National.
So, is this really happening?
Maybe. Yes? We’ll see. Woods says he still doesn’t know whether he’s going to play in the Masters, which begins Thursday, describing it Sunday as a “game-time decision.” Just 14 months ago, he was at the bottom of a hill in a wrecked SUV with snapped bones sticking every which way. Aside from a father-son exhibition in December—on a flat golf course in Orlando, where he was allowed to ride in a cart—Woods hasn’t played a competitive round of golf since the 2020 Masters. During a February interview, he downplayed any chance of a return in the near future, despite repeated entreaties from a persistent Jim Nantz.
The idea that he would even consider playing this tournament was a fantasy only a few weeks ago.
When Phil Mickelson announced last month that he would miss the Masters, following the collapse of his ignominious scheme to leverage the Saudi Crown against the PGA Tour, it was conventional wisdom that this would be the first Masters without Woods or Mickelson, the sport’s two brightest stars, for the first time in 30 years. Yes, Woods was on the list to play. But that was just a formality. He’s a man of routines, and his routine when he can’t play is to opt out the Friday before the event. Surely he would do so.
But then the rumors came from South Florida. Tiger was reportedly walking his home course, Medalist, with his caddie, Joe LaCava. Then there was video proof of it. His team said it was too soon to make any announcement, and Tiger was pushing himself at home to see if his body could handle walking 72 holes. Then there was the tracked flight to Augusta.
And there he was, still, Monday morning, warming up on the practice range at Augusta before playing another nine holes to determine whether his body could handle a full tournament on the grueling course.
Woods does not, and has never, given the media much. Amid this multiweek swirl of surmising, flight-tracking, and reports from South Florida, the only thing that Tiger himself has shared is his single Sunday “game-time decision” tweet, saying he was returning to Augusta to practice, and congratulating 16-year-old Anna Davis for winning this past weekend’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The rest has been a circus of social media speculation that Tiger might enjoy, if he is aware that it is happening. There was such a foofaraw about Woods wearing FootJoy golf shoes on Sunday, rather than his usual Nikes, that Nike was compelled to issue a statement. He might not even play, but Tiger is, yet again, the central story heading into the Masters—which is tremendous news for other top players in the world, who can now prep in peace and quiet, away from the media spotlight. (Enjoy the break, Rory McIlroy, from the annual deluge of questions about why you can’t close the deal on the Masters and the career grand slam.)
The relentless guesswork about whether he’ll pull the trigger has clouded another question, though: What would it look like if he does? I can almost feel pain in my own leg thinking about it.
It’s not just that the bones in his right leg—his plant leg—were shattered to bits last year. As he’s said, the bigger issue is walking 72 holes on one of the most demanding walks of the year. Augusta National undulates far more than it appears on TV, both up and down and side to side. (Or so I’m told; no one’s ever invited me! Hint hint, Augusta members.) You have to hit left-to-right shots off of right-to-left lies, or uphill shots off of steep downhill lies. In a February interview, Woods said that that “ankle mobility” was the biggest obstacle to his being able to return to high-level golf, noting that after not too long, “the ankle swells, the foot swells, the leg swells.” It hurts.
Even if Tiger had never gotten in a car accident and his leg was swell, it would still be … challenging … for a 46-year-old to score well at Augusta National after not having played in tournament competition for nearly a year and a half. The oldest Masters winner ever, after all, was Jack Nicklaus in 1986 when he was … 46. But as far as anyone knows, Nicklaus had not shattered either of his legs in the years preceding that victory.
Don’t forget, either, that at the time of his accident in Feb. 2021, Woods was on another injury hiatus following his fifth back surgery.
Everyone, including myself, who’s checked golf reporters’ tweets and flight paths and since-deleted sneak videos of Tiger practicing has been eagerly hoping that he tees it up come Thursday. But if he does, we will also be hiding behind a pillow, watching and wincing with one eye, as the legend swells his ankle en route to an opening-round 74, seven or so strokes behind the leaders. So then, is this brouhaha really worth all the energy? Have the past few weeks been worth it, for anyone involved?
Yes! It will be fun. Let’s go.