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Posted March 22, 2018 05:03 pm

At long last, Tiger Woods eagerly returns to Masters

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    At long last, Tiger Woods eagerly returns to Masters
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    Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the final round of the 2015 Masters Tournament. [ANDREW DAVIS TUCKER/STAFF]

As the months counted down to weeks and then days before the 2016 and 2017 Masters, there was no word until the very end about Tiger Woods’ playing status.

Despite not playing anywhere else, sidelined with a bad back that often left him unable to even get out of bed much less swing a golf club, he still seemed to be harboring hopes for a miracle. It seemed implausible that Woods was even considering teeing it up at Augusta National, but the truth is he actually was.

“Yeah, I was trying,” Woods admitted before the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “If there was one tournament I could come back to, it would be that one. There’s no other tournament like it. It has a deep place in my heart. From the time I was there as an amateur to my first win and to my other wins there as well, I just love playing Augusta National. I was just hoping I could just get my back to hold on for four days. I don’t need the practice rounds, I can just walk them and take a look at them and maybe chip and putt a little bit. But can it hold on for four days? And there was no chance, no.”

If there is a concept of hell for Tiger Woods, it was coming to Augusta in April three of the last four years without his golf clubs – just to have dinner. He wouldn’t miss a meal with his fellow green jacketed champions – especially walking Arnold Palmer in with Jack Nicklaus two years ago because they all knew it would likely be Arnie’s last – but it was tough to swallow that his competitive days in the Masters might be over.

“Frustrating, very frustrating, because I love playing Augusta National,” Woods said. “I love it. And I know how to play it. Sometimes I don’t play it well, but I know how to play it. I just love being out there on those greens and hitting putts and being creative. It is ... there’s no other golf course like it in the world and there’s no other golf tournament like it. It is literally, it’s a player’s heaven. And yeah, the last couple dinners have been frustrating in that aspect for sure.”

When Thursday’s first round arrives, it will have been 1,090 days since the last time Woods teed it up in the Masters – finishing tied for 17th in 2015. Pain-free for the first time in five years with a game evolving into a very familiar quality, Woods smiles at the thought.

“Very eager, yes, very,” he said of his long-awaited return. “I feel like I am physically able to do it again and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Since the end of last summer when Woods started posting videos of his incremental progress swinging after a spinal fusion surgery that he called “the last rope” option, anticipation has been building for his return to Augusta. Woods himself has referenced pointing his compass toward Augusta every week he’s played since competing in the Bahamas in December.

There’s been parabolic progress in his game every start, with the expectation growing from just finishing 18 holes healthy to making the cut to actually contending in quick succession. He played three times on the Florida swing and put himself in the mix every Sunday finishing T12, T2 and T5 at PGA National, Innisbrook and Bay Hill.

“If you  would've asked me at the beginning of the year that I would have had a chance to win two golf tournaments, I would have taken that in a heartbeat,” he said after making a run at Bay Hill.

His swing speed ranks second on tour, showing no signs of the back strain that derailed his career. He’s working without a swing coach for the first time in his career, trusting his hands and playing by more feel than mechanics.

“It just seems he got things back in place,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion. “When you’ve got his talent, that can really turn around quick.”

Heading into the Masters, Woods has played 10 consecutive rounds of par or better – his longest streak since he did it nine times before his approach shot bounced off the pin and into the pond on the 15th hole in the third round of the 2013 Masters, costing him four strokes in a controversial ruling. So his game has rounded into mid-season form.

“For me to go from not knowing whether or not I will ever be able to play the game again to, I might be able to play maybe at the tour level, actually I might be able to make a couple of cuts, well I might be able to possibly get myself into a mix, oh, I’m in the mix,” Woods said of a rate of return that surprises even him. “And so there’s a process and an evolution to it and it’s been quick but still I have to say just to enjoy all of this. Because, at one point, man that wasn’t even a thought, I didn’t ever even think about playing out here.”

Before Woods returned in December at his tournament in the Bahamas, he had fallen to 1,199th in the world. With his fifth-place finish at Bay Hill, he climbed to No. 105. Meanwhile, he went from sentimental long-shot at Augusta in December to the pre-tournament betting favorite by March.

“The narrative has completely flipped,” he said, downplaying the heightening expectations. “I enjoy just playing again after what I’ve been through. Playing feels good.”

What feels the best is preparing with the firm knowledge that he will be teeing it up on Thursday in the Masters. Asked what he needed to work on in his two weeks before Augusta, Woods said “everything.” But you could tell he’s relishing the work, with plans to spend a couple of days intensely studying the course at Augusta National the week before the tournament to re-familiarize himself with a place he’s won four times – but none in 13 years since 2005.

“I hadn’t played it in a couple years now and so I’d like to get up there and take a look at it,” he said. “I know there’s no changes as far as design. I’ll get used to playing on bent (grass). I haven’t putted on bent in literally years. That’s going to be a little bit different. ... I want to go up there and make sure and then take a look at all my reads on my putts and see if they match my book and if not, then obviously I got to erase and draw some more lines.”

At 42, he’s not counting himself out of the Masters mix. He’s not just showing for dinner any more.

“There are a few guys that can do it late in their career,” he said of winning. “For me, I’m ecstatic to have a chance to play again and to have a chance to win golf tournaments and compete. There was awhile there where I didn’t look like I was ever going to be out here again, not in the capacity of a professional player. But here I am playing again and it’s a lot of fun.”

Video: Tiger's final hole, 1997 Masters

Masters Record

Year Place Score Round Earnings
1 2 3 4
2015 T17 -5 73 69 68 73 $ 155,000
2013 T4 -5 70 73 70 70 $ 352,000
2012 T40 +5 72 75 72 74 $ 32,000
2011 T4 -10 71 66 74 67 $ 330,667
2010 T4 -11 68 70 70 69 $ 330,000
2009 T6 -8 70 72 70 68 $ 242,813
2008 2 -5 72 71 68 72 $ 810,000
2007 T2 +3 73 74 72 72 $ 541,333
2006 T3 -4 72 71 71 70 $ 315,700
2005 1 -12 74 66 65 71 $ 1,260,000
2004 T22 +2 75 69 75 71 $ 70,200
2003 T15 +2 76 73 66 75 $ 93,000
2002 1 -12 70 69 66 71 $ 1,008,000
2001 1 -16 70 66 68 68 $ 1,008,000
2000 5 -4 75 72 68 69 $ 184,000
1999 T18 +1 72 72 70 75 $ 52,160
1998 T8 -3 71 72 72 70 $ 89,600
1997 1 -18 70 66 65 69 $ 486,000
1996 T60 +6 75 75     $ 0
1995 T41 +5 72 72 77 72 $ 0

Best Finish: 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005 Masters Champion