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Tiger Woods at the Masters: A fairy tale or false dawn?

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It is the traditional greeting at the commencement of any opening Masters round, be it a five-time champion like Woods or one of the 18 debutants this year at Augusta National (albeit with a name change).

And it is the above six words that those gathering on the first tee will await with bated breath shortly before 10.34am local time today – a little after 3.30pm here in the UK.

In fact, no more pronouncement will be more hotly anticipated than that of Woods, whose every move – from his initial flight to Augusta for a practice round with son Charlie last month to a final practice round on the back nine yesterday – has been closely monitored.

What follows next, no one quite knows, not even Woods. He had talked about being here to win, to believe in a fairy tale to eclipse the events of 2019 even. But is that genuine belief or merely the sort of bravado that has helped him get through hours of agony in a hospital bed, even longer in rehabilitation?

Usually so guarded, he was not afraid to admit on the event of this Masters that there had not been a day without pain since his car careered off the road at 85mph back in February 2020, and he lived to fight another day.

All the indications were that his golfing career – at least competitively – was over, and when he contemplated it all, he was content if that was the case. The numbers stack up nicely: 15 Major wins, 82 PGA Tour titles, and talking on Tuesday he said he would walk away content even if they were never added to again.

Even now on the 25th anniversary of his first Masters win, he remains golf’s biggest draw. He pocketed £6million for not even playing last season as part of the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Programme, aimed at rewarding those that bring the most attention to the game. Whatever his results this season, one suspects another big cheque will be coming his way at the end.

Woods has been in the heads, hearts and mouths of the Augusta patrons all week, so too the 90 other players that will tee off alongside him today.

And it was as much the Tiger name prowling within touching distance of the front-runners on the leaderboard in 2019 which paved the way for a multitude of on-course capitulations. Some of the world’s best players fell apart with the sort of shots that might not have happened had a player of lesser stature been breathing down their necks.

Getty Images

Repeating the miracle of 2019 is surely unthinkable and, in truth, this is not about the Green Jacket, although it is salivating to think that he has been to the brink and back to win it just a few years ago.

Were he to miss the cut – imminently possible in his first official ranking tournament since his last Masters appearance in 2020 – it wouldn’t necessarily be anti-climactic. Instead, if up to that point there are glimpses of the old Woods, it will offer a hope of just the beginning of his latest and unlikeliest comeback, with a summer return to St Andrew’s looming, scene of his first Open Championship win in 2000 by eight strokes.

He still has a mountain to climb in terms what he’s been through but also in the demanding undulations of Augusta, which a seasoned professional like Justin Rose said left him huffing and puffing, and sore when at his fittest.

It is a big question mark hovering over Woods, its hilly nature merely adding a further hurdle to the comeback trail.

If it were merely down to the goodwill of his peers, he would already be donning a Green Jacket for a sixth time but the game has moved on in his absence and there are a myriad of players that could challenge for the title come Sunday.

There are the past champions such as Dustin Johnson, whose final round at the Players suggested the 2020 Masters champion might be timing his return to form to aplomb.

AP

There are those attempting to make history like Rory McIlroy, aiming to emulate the five players to have won the clean sweep of Majors, Woods the last of them to do so.

And there are the rising stars predicted to make their mark like Cameron Smith, Viktor Hovland and new world No1 Scottie Scheffler.

None would deny that top billing belongs to Woods, the players talking as excitedly about having him back in the field as any golfing enthusiast.

The last word, though, surely belongs to the man himself, who knows his body better than anyone else. Previously, it had been a back injury that had curtailed his golf, now it is pure mobility, having gone from three months in a hospital bed to a wheelchair then crutches, to walking and then finally picking up a golf club.

“I still have the hands to do it and I can still move,” he said, producing the sort of shots in practice to back up the claim. “I’ve been in worse situations than I feel right now and won tournaments.”

Surely not this time. But with Tiger Woods, you never quite know.

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