AUGUSTA, Ga. — As news broke that Tiger Woods had nearly doubled the 45-mph speed limit on that Southern California road in February, wrecking far more than his car, I was standing under a tree near the 16th green at the Masters, reliving a more pleasant memory of Tiger.
He had just hit his tee shot in tight two years ago, inspiring a wild explosion of noise. I race-walked with my brother to the left side of the green, desperate for a view of the putt that would all but clinch Tiger’s fifth green jacket, when a security guard approached to clear our sorry, late-arriving butts out of there. Each of us immediately dropped to a knee and crouched our middle-aged bodies painfully low to clear all sightlines for those behind us, then sheepishly looked up at the guard to wait for his verdict.
The man backed off. Security guards never back off at the Masters, but it was almost as if this one understood that the moment was so big and powerful that it demanded an exception even to unbreakable Augusta National rules. Woods asked his caddie for a read on the short putt, and an incredulous Joe LaCava responded, “Just put it in the effin’ hole.” Tiger did indeed put it in the effin’ hole, and suddenly we were all witnessing perhaps the greatest Masters of all time.
I returned to that same spot, under that same tree, at the 16th on Wednesday for professional and personal reasons. But more than anything, after missing the Masters in November, I wanted — in my mind — to feel the magic again, and to hear the roars, and to feel the earth tremble like it did on April 14, 2019. It didn’t matter that pros spent the day honoring Augusta’s skip-the-ball-across-the-pond tradition to the fans’ delight, and taking 10 or more practice putts on the green.
The 16th was the ideal place to remember why that Masters was the best sporting event I’ve ever covered in 35 years of doing this, and to consider the possibility that this year’s tournament could top even that one.
No, it doesn’t seem likely that a Masters without Woods could produce epic Sunday drama. But the beauty of sport — and the advantage it always has had over Hollywood and Broadway — is its unscripted unpredictability. Amazing things happen out of left field, and nobody knows when or how they will unfold.
Golf fans know that they unfold at Augusta National more than in any other arena in the sport.
On the eve of the tournament, it was strange to walk around the place and observe the temporary holes in the Masters experience. Not as strange as it must have been in November, when no fans (or patrons, as the green jackets prefer to call them) were allowed on the grounds, but plenty strange enough. No Par-3 Contest. No crowds. No grandstands. No players, caddies, media members, agents or equipment reps sharing old stories under the massive oak tree behind the clubhouse.
Masters chairman Fred Ridley refused to say how many fans will be allowed on site this week, or what percentage of your typical non-pandemic gallery that number would represent; Wednesday’s crowd felt like 15-20 percent of what it had been in the past. But on Sunday, if the play is worthy, face masks won’t stop the gallery from sounding a lot bigger than the head count suggests.
Now it’s on Bryson DeChambeau, and Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Spieth, and Brooks Koepka, and Rory McIlroy to fill the Tiger void. Woods is 45, and in a dire state of physical disrepair. He might never again play competitive golf, or play it at an elite level. And even if Tiger had never crashed that SUV, golf wasn’t going to be able to lean on him forever. A star, or a small circle of stars, was and is needed to carry the sport for the next 10 years and beyond.
The hulking DeChambeau, at 27, is best positioned to be The Guy in a post-Tiger world, and he would stake his claim to that title Sunday with his second major championship victory in seven months.
But the fairway is wide open for whoever wants to take the 85th Masters, and the sports world, by the throat. This can still be a tournament for the ages. In the end, no Tiger on Thursday does not have to mean no Tiger roars on Sunday.