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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Tiger is back in Masters town where illusion and mystery rule | The Masters

At Amen Corner, you hear the songs without ever seeing the birds. When an 89-year-old Sam Snead cracked a patron on the head with a sliced ceremonial tee shot in 2002, Augusta media outlets were discreet in their coverage.

On testing by a bold journalist in 1996, it was discovered the immaculate blue ponds at Augusta National are produced with the assistance of food dye. Fred Ridley, the club chairman, was asked on Wednesday to mark the 10th anniversary of women being afforded membership by confirming some numbers. “No thanks,” was the essence of his reply. Illusion everywhere.

We do not know the precise circumstances of 23 February last year and the single-car crash involving Tiger Woods on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It seems fair to assume we never will. As Woods launches his latest, apparently miraculous recovery at a venue where he has been victorious five times, there is cause to ponder what resembles reality.

Woods clearly relishes playing a leading role in melodrama. When he pointed towards a “game-time decision” over whether to feature in the Masters, it was as if Woods’s right leg and foot – now held together by nuts and bolts – would somehow be in a profoundly different condition on Thursday than Monday.

Here we have a golfer who said he was lucky to retain life and limbs 14 months ago, who has not played competitively since November 2020 and who, in November 2021, said he was “so far” from competing with the world’s best. The same individual, with a straight face, said this week that he thinks he can win the Masters.

Woods is not known for public delusion, which could ultimately make him look silly. It is highly unlikely he would make a bold prediction, or even turn up in Georgia at all, if thinking back-to-back rounds of 78 were possible. Others in this field are of the mind that the 15-time major winner will play well. It is just that none of this tallies with what was said and done before.

It is as though the lives of Augusta National and Tiger Woods are perfectly choreographed, while the rest of us are left to guess where mirage begins and ends.

Woods signed off from pre-tournament practice on Wednesday morning with a drive floated into the middle of the 18th fairway. From there, he fired an iron to 8ft and converted for a birdie three. The crowds whooped and hollered; they believe, all right. What a boost the Masters has received, not for the first time, by Woods’s very involvement.

Dustin Johnson, who won his Green Jacket in some comfort in November 2020, is again among the contenders this year.
Dustin Johnson, who won his Green Jacket in some comfort in November 2020, is again among the contenders this year. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

That his play looks so sharp infers he has been allowed far more time with club in hand in recent times than anybody on the outside understood. It is precisely the way Woods has always wanted it. If come Sunday evening the man pulled from a mangled SUV on a sunny Californian morning is even in the frame for the Masters the latest chapter in a life story that would be discarded by fiction editors will have been penned.

Woods must at least fancy his chances of making the cut, given 50 and ties from a field of 91 – that includes six amateurs and the 64-year-old Sandy Lyle – survive for round three.

Woods has returned to a young man’s game. Eight of the top 10 players in the world are aged 30 or under. Part of the ongoing issue for Rory McIlroy, a veritable veteran at 32, is the wave of fresh blood that has appeared behind him.

Yet McIlroy must take hope that so many of the principle protagonists are in questionable touch. It is for that reason an obvious favourite is impossible to identify. Scottie Scheffler, who has shot to world No 1 with three wins in 2022, has played here twice, finishing 19th and 18th.

Justin Thomas’s strong claims are seemingly boosted by a close alliance with Woods. The pair played practice holes together last week and this. If Woods imparts Augusta knowledge, it is assumed Thomas is the beneficiary.

There are a couple of problems with this theory. Woods has never been particularly keen to hand competitive advantages to an opponent. Why would he then and why would he now? Thomas may also reach the point where being in the company of Woods so often becomes exhausting.

The scale of gallery attention on the duo even during buildup work here has to be a distraction. So, too, that so much of Thomas’s time is taken up by answering questions about his supposed mentor. Thomas is easily good enough to win the 86th Masters and deserves to be counted among the leading lights, but that must be on his own terms rather than by association.

Scottie Scheffler’s three wins this year have helped propel him to world No1 and his status as one of the pre-Masters favourites.
Scottie Scheffler’s three wins this year have helped propel him to world No1 and his status as one of the pre-Masters favourites. Photograph: John AngelilloUPI/Shutterstock

Jordan Spieth deserves to be mentioned on account of Augusta specialism and admirable recovery from a serious slump that hampered the Texan after his Open success of 2017. “I feel like my game is in a great spot,” said the winner of three majors. “I feel like I am ready to contend.”

Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith, the newly crowned Players champion, are worthy of consideration. Bryson DeChambeau, not so long ago the man of the moment, regards himself as 80% fit. It has been widely forgotten that Bubba Watson, who has shown glimpses of a return to form, is a two-time Masters champion. Justin Rose typically carries British hopes, but Paul Casey has long since displayed a level of style and ability that could prevail here.

These all feel like distant subplots. Against all odds, the Tiger is back in town. If nothing else, the past few days have served as a reminder of how much this sport will miss him – and his layers of intrigue – when he is gone.

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