One hour before their tee-time, Joe LaCava stood on the putting green, guarding his employer’s bag like a man holding the velvet case for some precious firearm.
From the back of the clubhouse, you heard Tiger Woods before you saw him… an explosion of sound building with each faintly inelegant step of a man walking more stiffly than usual.
Woods went straight to work, marking balls and rolling some one-armed putts before, again to the din of the Big Top, striding off for the range. It was 10.18am at Augusta National and we had confirmation that the 86th Masters would be no conventional Major. Tiger was in the field.
True, there’d been something a little cloying in the US media’s determination to paint a round of golf as some kind of religious parable. But maybe that perspective is easily explained when you consider that current World No.1 Scottie Scheffler earned roughly 50% more money in the last two months than Jack Nicklaus won in his entire career.
Woods is the reason.
His victory here a quarter of a century ago changed the face of the game so profoundly that PGA prize money that year (1997) was $80m, compared to almost $300m when he won his fifth green jacket in 2019.
Hence the hysteria following every step of a man who spent three months in a hospital bed after that shocking February ’21 crash in Los Angeles appeared to have ended one of the greatest careers in professional golf.
On Tuesday, Woods referred to a “tough, tough year” endured and the plain, tedious realities today of trying to coax his body to a state of readiness for this test.
Mentioning the “rods and plates and screws” in his rebuilt right leg, Woods spoke of an acceptance of constant pain in his life now and, specifically, the jolting reality that walking a course with the unique topography of Augusta National would be his greatest challenge this week.
“I can hit it just fine, I don’t have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint,” he reflected on Tuesday. “Walking is the hard part now, 72 holes is a long road.”
Mostly, that press conference was a tepid exercise in sycophancy, but this is what happens around Tiger.
The circumstances of an accident that almost led to a leg amputation have never been explained nor, in this kind of forum, explored. When you are bigger than your sport, history turns its crooked mouth away from awkward detail.
Why was he travelling at more than twice the speed limit? Was he even conscious as his SUV veered out of control? If not, why not? More pertinently, would the narrative have tracked a different course had someone else been injured or, worse, killed?
Golf is simply too beholden to Woods to indulge any appetite for answers to those questions. He transcends the game. So, the best golfers in the world may have gathered in sport’s most beautiful place this week, yet it was a man teeing it up competitively for the first time in over 500 days who had Augusta hyperventilating.
On Wednesday, he’d spent 25 minutes on the putting green having played nine, holing his first 16 putts to giddy cackles in the gallery and, accordingly, feeding an idea that it might be possible to do what Nicklaus did in 1986, becoming the oldest Masters winner while collecting a sixth green jacket aged 46.
People, thus, were 20 deep at the ropes as he drove off at the first yesterday, just as the then tournament leader, Padraig Harrington, slipped almost unseen through the restless throng for a quick toilet break.
Almost three hours later, Woods would turn at level par, “a miracle” achievement according to Brandel Chamblee on Golf Channel. No question, he was surpassing rational expectations heading towards Amen Corner, having handed back a birdie on six with three poor swings on eight.
There were visible flinches occasionally and his walk remained that of an elderly man but, after 25 years of extraordinary achievement, chronic injuries and the tawdriest of personal scandals, it did seem astonishing that he was even insinuating himself into the Championship conversation here.
But though he undoubtedly was, the scoring never quite raced into high red digits, despite a course softened by three inches of rain since Monday.
By early afternoon, a swirling wind was stiffening in intensity, making distance control a lottery and meaning that anything in or around par golf would be within touching distance of the leader. Taking on Rae’s Creek with his second on 13 from 200-yards plus, Woods’ birdie got him to one under, then just two off the pacesetters.
A tight swing on the next ended one-handed, his ball hooked left into the trees and with Tiger now walking with a faint limp. That brought bogey, before a swinging right to left birdie putt on 16 meant he would get home with a steely one-under 71.
Good enough for a title challenge? In 23 previous appearances, Woods broke 70 in his first round only twice (2010 and 2020), so this would surely do just fine, After all, seven of the top 10 players in the world today are under 30, among them Cameron Smith, whose extraordinary 68 was book-ended by two double bogeys.
Here now, in the midst of them, was Tiger Woods, winner of his first Masters nine years before the arrival of Twitter, 13 before Instagram.
Still there in the white heat, still confounding a gaping world.