AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s been 24 years since a famously ambitious, wide-eyed Stanford student turned off Washington Road and up Magnolia Lane for his first Masters.
Four green jackets, 14 major championships and 80 PGA Tour victories later, Tiger Woods still got goose bumps upon arrival for a practice round last week.
“It’s unlike any other drive that we ever are a part of in the game,” he said.
But time, contrary to popular belief, has never stood still at Augusta National Golf Club. The Masters this week is in motion inside the intersection of Tiger Woods nostalgia and post-Tiger power golf.
The former is sprinkled with hope that amid the azaleas and dogwoods another Woods charge will bloom across the back nine.
The latter features a 43-year-old man with a recent history of back trouble trying to defeat the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas.
Woods knows Augusta National better than all those guys combined.
They know so much more about mastering golf’s new technology that he comes to some of them for advice.
We know Woods can do it; he was the runner-up in the last major (two shots back of Koepka at the 2018 PGA Championship) and won the Tour Championship at East Lake in Atlanta last September.
“I just feel like that I’ve improved a lot over the past 12, 14 months,” said Woods, who finished tied for 32nd at the 2018 Masters after missing three of the previous four. “But more than anything, I’ve proven to myself that I can play at this level again. I’ve worked my way back into one of the players that can win events.”
Preparation is the problem. Woods’ vintage success was grounded in a kind of extended meticulousness no longer possible.
There is too much back pain for a daily routine.
Practice now requires careful planning.
“Putting,” Woods said. “I’ve worked on my putting and when I have, I’ve putted well. If I worked on my short game, I’ve chipped well. You know, I just can’t do all things all the time anymore.”
Rock the mock turtleneck
Mother Teresa and Princess Diana were alive when Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997. He broke 20 records in the process, including youngest to win (21).
We want to see the most prominent red shirt in sports show up on Sunday.
We are guaranteed to get the throwback mock turtleneck look Woods unveiled in 2003. He wore it the last time he won the Masters, way back in 2005.
“I thought it was a pretty neat look back in the day,” Woods said. “I was probably in a little better shape in those days. But I had won events wearing the mock and I’ve always enjoyed them.”
Please, no mocking.
Koepka, 28 and winner of three of the last seven majors, said he went on Nike’s website and bought four or five mock turtle necks after the 2005 Masters.
“Everything always comes back into style, right?” Koepka said.
Woods winning majors was sure in style when he won his 14th. Back then, in the glow of a Torrey Pines celebration at the 2008 U.S. Open, it seemed like he would reach his childhood goal of besting Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
But no majors in over a decade means probably no more.
Tiger, No. 185 in putting
The nostalgia part of any Tiger Woods appearance strikes at the heart, even for the best golfers in the world.
“It’s definitely great for us, great for the game — fans, me, everyone — to have Tiger back around and healthy,” Rickie Fowler said.
But remember when the old stars feared Tiger?
The young stars relish a chance to shoot it out with a legend they grew up seeing on TV and in video games.
“It would be pretty cool,” defending Masters champ Patrick Reed said when asked about Woods contending this week. “But, at the same time, hopefully I can go ahead and fight him for it.”
As Koepka did last year in edging Woods at the PGA Championship.
“I think everybody in the field would love to stop him,” Koepka said. “I enjoyed stopping history. I had a great time.”
The reality is Woods is still driving the ball (No. 44 on the PGA Tour so far this year) but isn’t putting well (No. 185 in overall putting average).
Woods has changed or altered clubs more times in the last year than in his previous two decades on tour. To contend this week at Augusta, he will need “the break here or there” he got last September at the Tour Championship.
As true as the heart skip that comes with that view from Magnolia Lane, Tiger Woods is the greatest talent golf has ever seen. But if this isn’t the last time we have a chance to see Woods in Sunday twilight at Augusta, that time is getting close.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff