Tiger Woods is back.
Because he’s got a new back.
And golf could certainly use its absentee superstar.
Physical frailties and off-the-course chaos in his personal life aside, the most famous golfer of this generation and the world’s biggest sports celebrity outside of maybe LeBron James lately returned to the site where he electrified the nation with his four Masters titles and jaw-dropping shot-making. He’s created a buzz like no other.
Woods brings pizzazz. And interest. And eyeballs. And marginal golf fans. And more money.
Four back surgeries and a spinal fusion operation have prepared the 42-year-old Woods, who even referred to himself as “a walking miracle” on his own website, for a chance to win his fifth green jacket.
Thousands arrived Tuesday at Augusta National to watch a trim, pain-free Woods eagle a pair of holes on the back nine and roared their lusty approval during his return here after an absence of two years.
Oh, and it was just a practice round.
It’s still two days until he tees it up Thursday morning, but the golf faithful couldn’t wait to stand in his presence and soak up the ambiance before what figures to be the most anticipated Masters in years, maybe ever.
“I agree,” said Phil Mickelson, Woods’ former adversary who shocked many inside these gates by playing that round with Tiger. “There’s a lot of top players, young and old, playing their top golf. I think it could lead to one of the most exciting Masters in years.”
Their pairing captivated the press. So Woods, who had driven interest in the game and more than doubled prize money and television ratings during his reign as the No. 1 player in the game for a mind-boggling 683 weeks, has also become the Nelson Mandela of the golf world by bringing together these two once-bitter foes.
“That’s funny,” Rory McIlroy said. “I walked past Tiger on the range and said, ‘I never thought I would see the day, Tiger and Phil playing a practice round at Augusta.”
That’s the stage set for one of the most compelling events in golf history. After last year’s Masters drew the lowest TV ratings in 13 years as a Spaniard outdueled an Englishman, Woods’ return has overshadowed all else. And that takes some doing because so many are at the top of their games.
Of the 87 men in the field, an amazing 31 have won a major championship. An incredible 20 players already have a green jacket, but 19 of them are falling under the radar. Even including Mickelson, a three-time champion.
“It seemed like there were a lot of people out there today,” Mickelson deadpanned.
Despite playing in just five tournaments since 2015 and not winning since the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in 2013, Woods stands as a clear favorite in Vegas’ eyes, probably prematurely. But that may be a self-fulfilling prophecy because the heavy bettors can’t wait to lay a wager on him.
“Does Tiger have a chance to win?” Masters broadcaster Jim Nantz said on the “On Second Thought” podcast. “Absolutely. Is he the favorite to win? No one is.”
Yet, no one moves the needle quite like Tiger.
No. 2 in the world Justin Thomas’ press conference drew no more than a dozen reporters in the 128-seat venue. Sergio Garcia — remember him? Only about 20 members of the press gathered to listen to the defending Masters champion talk about his chances to repeat.
The seats were filled to the brim when Woods arrived.
But this field is full of past champions like Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson and would-be champions like Paul Casey and Matt Kuchar and multiple major winners like McIlroy, who needs a Masters to complete a Grand Slam. And no one’s talking about Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world who has 17 Tour victories but never hit a shot after injuring his back in a fall on a staircase on the eve of last year’s tournament. He said his confidence then was a 10 after three wins in three PGA starts. Now?
“I’d say it’s a 9 1/2,” Johnson said.
For all the youngsters not yet even in their prime, this Masters has a 40-somethings flavor in a sport that’s treasured by 60-somethings and older.
History, however, is not in Tiger’s favor.
In the 81-year history of this tournament, only six players already in their 40s have won. Four of those — Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead, Gary Player and Ben Hogan — all played in a different era where the course was shorter. Ben Crenshaw won his second Masters at age 42 in 1995, but he was channeling his inner Harvey Penick after his mentor had died just four days before the tournament began.
“He’s dangerous in any golf tournament, moreso here,” McIlroy said of Woods. “But you’re going to have to beat someone who’s playing well.”
Nicklaus is the oldest Masters champion at age 46, but Raymond Floyd was 49 when he lost in a playoff to Nick Faldo in 1990. Nicklaus also tied for seventh in 1987 at age 47 and tied for sixth at 58 in 1998. And there have been plenty of other near misses. Mickelson has finished second and third in his 40s. Champion Angel Cabrera was 43 and Kenny Perry was 48 when they lost playoffs in 2013 and 2009.
Even Tiger’s pulling back the reins a bit.
“Well, I have four rounds to play,” he said. “So let’s just kind of slow down.”
Too late for that. Some of the young guns have dreamily wished to have taken on Woods in his prime. But Thomas said not so fast.
“Anybody that played against him say that you don’t want that,” the 24-year-old said. “So I don’t know. If I say I want to play against him, I can’t beat him. And then if I say that I don’t want to play against him, they say that I’m backing down from a challenge.”
He can’t win. But Tiger just might.