Opinion: Tiger Woods contending at the Masters again, and for many years to come

AUGUSTA, Ga. — If ever there were a golf course made for one man, and one man made for a golf course, it would be Tiger Woods and Augusta National. So it should come as absolutely no surprise that despite an uneven and disappointing season, and despite his advancing age (nearly 45) and despite the 19-month wait from one Masters to the next, the defending champion has launched himself into contention for another green jacket.

Tiger set foot on the grounds of Augusta National on a rainy Thursday morning and his game suddenly came alive. Playing the first bogey-free opening round at the Masters in his life, he shot a 4-under-par 68, tying his career-best opening round at Augusta National, to find himself tied for fourth, three shots behind leader Paul Casey.

What went right?

“Everything,” Tiger said. “I did everything well today.”

Tiger playing well at the Masters? That is so not 2020. That’s actually normal.

But is anyone really surprised? Tiger certainly is not. He called it on Tuesday in his pre-tournament news conference.

Tiger Woods had plenty of open space at Augusta National with the Masters being held sans spectators. (Photo: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports)

“Do I expect to contend?” he said. “Yes, I do. I mean, you look at Freddie (Couples) and Bernhard (Langer), they are in their 60s and they seem to contend.  Jack (Nicklaus) contended here when he was, what, 58, or 56, whatever it was. It can be done. This is a golf course in which having an understanding how to play and where to miss it and how to hit the shots around here, it helps.

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“When I first came here, it was a lot of drivers and a lot of wedges. Now it's a little bit different and a little bit longer clubs into the holes, but still understanding how to play it definitely helps. That's one of the reasons why you see past champions, like I mentioned Freddie and Bernhard, to be able to contend so late in their careers, and hopefully I'll be one of those guys.”

Here’s a prediction: He will be. Tiger’s name will pop up on the leaderboard here for the next 10-15 years, whether he wins another green jacket or not.

Tiger described “a sense of ease” on the course, although there were some bizarre moments. With no spectators allowed this week due to the pandemic, there were no galleries, but Tiger nonetheless had the biggest gathering following him, a couple dozen people, including members of the news media sensing another big story.

Still, it was so quiet around him that you could pick out bits of his conversations as he walked down the fairway, and you could hear him chuckling while talking to the caddie of one of his playing partners, Shane Lowry, on the long walk down the second fairway. 

Without gallery ropes, those who are on the course are closer than ever before. In some cases, too close. A woman ended up walking through that second fairway as Tiger’s group came by. She dodged a caddie before Lowry motioned for her to go past. 

Here’s another prediction: During the course of the tournament, someone is going to walk right into a player hitting a shot this week. It’s going to happen.

The weirdness was unmistakable.

“There's no patrons, no roars,” Tiger said. “There are some blind shots here, and we had to ask the camera guys where the shot went because we just didn’t know. That's very different. There were a lot of firsts today. That's kind of the way this entire year has been.”

Amid all the change, though, one constant prevailed. Tiger Woods, playing well, near the lead of another Masters.

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