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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tiger Woods says, ‘I feel like I am going to play’ the Masters

Tiger Woods during a practice round at Augusta National Golf Course in Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

By Bill Pennington and Alan Blinder

In a career defined by triumph, travail, resolve and resurrection, Tiger Woods earlier this week vowed to attempt his most startling comeback yet: returning to golf’s greatest stage, the Masters Tournament, roughly 14 months after a car crash so devastating that doctors weighed amputating his right leg.

Woods, who as recently as two months ago downplayed his physical capacity to contend on a championship course, is scheduled to tee off in today’s first round of the Masters Tournament at 10:34 a.m.

“As of right now, I feel like I am going to play,” Woods, 46, said Tuesday at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, which has hosted the event since 1934.

He will be seeking a sixth green jacket, the ceremonial garment bestowed upon Masters winners and golf’s most-prized award. If successful, Woods will tie Jack Nicklaus for the most Masters victories and claim his 16th major championship, inching closer to Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles.

Woods has not played in a PGA Tour event in 17 months and his world ranking has plummeted to 973. But when asked on Tuesday if he believed he could win this week, he answered: “I do.” He added that he would not “show up to an event unless I think I can win it.”

Given his past record, it hardly seemed an idle boast. Part of the Woods legend is his ability to deliver implausible achievements while under duress, like his narrow playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open when Woods won despite having a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and two stress fractures in his left leg.

Woods on Tuesday recalled that experience at Torrey Pines Golf Course near San Diego and said it would serve as inspiration.

“I’ve had stuff before and things I had to play through, even going back to the U.S. Open when my leg was a little bit busted,” he said. “Those are all times that I can draw upon where I was successful — how I’ve learned to block things out and focus on what I need to focus on.”

Still, Woods conceded that walking Augusta National’s hilly terrain for four consecutive days will test the recuperative limits of his right leg, which was surgically rebuilt after his sport-utility vehicle tumbled off a Los Angeles-area boulevard at a high speed on Feb. 23, 2021.

He suffered open fractures, in several places, of the tibia and the fibula in his right leg, injuries that had to be stabilized with a rod and with screws and pins inserted into his foot and ankle. Woods spent a month in a hospital and was confined to a bed at his Florida home for another two months.

Asked Tuesday if he had pain while playing golf, Woods replied: “There is, each and every day.”

Woods said he had no misgivings about his ability to play. The worry, he said, was the topographical perils of Augusta and the demands of the 72-hole tournament: “Walking is the hard part.”

Woods is scheduled to play the first round with Louis Oosthuizen, who finished second at the Masters in 2012 but has never won at Augusta, and Joaquin Niemann, who tied for 40th at last year’s tournament.

Woods, who practiced briefly Tuesday morning before heavy rain chased the golfers from the course before 11 a.m., said he planned to play a nine-hole practice round on Wednesday. Woods also played nine practice holes on Sunday and Monday, the second time with Fred Couples and Justin Thomas. Woods was limping more noticeably on Monday than on Sunday. He walked up the many hills slowly with his gait slightly more inhibited.

Couples, a longtime friend and a frequent practice-round companion of Woods’ for more than a decade, agreed with Woods that the sloping, uneven contours of Augusta National would most likely present the biggest challenge to Woods.

“It is about the walking,” Couples said. “It’s brutal to walk, and to go do that after what he’s gone through — whatever it was, 14 months ago — and to be playing today?

“You can always be in pain, right. He’s kind of a tough guy. He’s never going to let you know he’s in pain.”

Overall, Couples was impressed with how Woods played.

“He looked phenomenal,” Couples said. “He drove it really, really well, like a machine. His irons were good. He’s Tiger Woods, so of course, he knows how to putt. He’s just unreal. If he cannot overdo it. If he just doesn’t get too amped up, which is easier said than done.

“But if he can walk around here in 72 holes, he’ll contend. He’s too good.”

On Tuesday, Woods praised the surgeons, physical therapists and other specialists who have helped bring about his recovery, which he said would be tested daily during the tournament.

“How am I going to get all the swelling out and recover for the next day?” he asked. “It’s just a matter of what my body’s able to do the next day and the recovery. We push it and try to recover the best we possibly can that night and see how it is the next morning.”

Woods added: “It gets agonizing and teasing because of simple things that I would normally just go do now take a couple hours here and a couple hours there to prep and then wind down.”

At the same time, when asked to summarize his last 14 months in a few words, Woods said he was “thankful.”

“To finally get out of that where I wasn’t in a wheelchair or crutches,” he continued, “and walking and still had more surgeries ahead of me, to then say that I was going to be here playing and talking to you guys again, it would have been very unlikely.”

Woods, who won his first Masters title 25 years ago, in 1997, has carefully managed expectations — of the golf world and, perhaps, of his own — for a return to the PGA Tour at several points since the crash.

Woods’ last appearance in a PGA Tour sanctioned event was at the 2020 Masters, which was played in November rather than April because of the pandemic. At that event, Woods struggled and finished tied for 38th. But the 2019 Masters, his first major tournament victory in 11 years, makes any challenge — even competing in this year’s Masters — seem possible.

After undergoing multiple back and knee surgeries, Woods was not considered a serious contender that year, yet through the final round he played his best golf, birdieing three of the final six holes to win his fifth Masters title.

It is difficult to imagine there could be a sixth for Woods in the coming days at Augusta National, given the severity of his injuries and the challenges he will encounter on the course, but Woods has proved in the past, many times over, that he is hard to bet against.

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