Tiger Woods launched his improbable quest for a record-equalling sixth Masters title on Thursday, 14 months after a rollover car crash left him with injuries so severe he feared he would lose his right leg.
The 46-year-old, who has fallen to 973rd in the world rankings, said this week he thought his game was good enough to win a 16th major championship.
But he acknowledged his surgically repaired leg was an unknown quantity heading into his first top-flight competitive round in 17 months on the hilly, 7,510-yard Augusta National course.
“You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I’m up for,” Woods said days before the tournament.
Woods cut a vibrant figure in a hot pink shirt and black trousers — all the better for the thousands of Augusta patrons keen to get a glimpse of him to track their hero.
A 30-minute delay to the start because of pre-dawn thunderstorms only intensified the anticipation for Woods’s appearance on the first tee.
He wasn’t delighted with his opening drive, which came up short of the righthand fairway bunker. His approach trickled off the green.
As Woods opened his round, two players — Irish veteran Padraig Harrington and amateur Austin Greaser, were one-under through nine holes.
Woods’s quest for a 16th major title comes 25 years after he cemented his superstar status with a record-setting victory that made him the youngest Masters winner, nabbing the first of his current 15 major titles.
He teed off alongside former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa and Chilean Joaquin Niemann — who wasn’t born when Woods won his first Masters title in 1997.
Niemann is among a raft of young golfers whose careers were shaped by Woods’s influence.
Scottie Scheffler, 25, arrived at Augusta ranked number one in the world after winning his first three US PGA Tour titles in the space of two months.
Spain’s US Open champion Jon Rahm, 27, can regain the number one ranking he ceded to Scheffler with a first Masters victory, one of five players who can supplant the American this week along with reigning British Open champion Collin Morikawa, FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay, rising Norwegian star Viktor Hovland and Australian Cameron Smith.
Northern Ireland’s four-time major winner, Rory McIlroy, will be trying for the eighth time to complete a career Grand Slam with a Masters victory, while defending champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan is battling fitness concerns as he tries to join Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Woods as the only players to win back-to-back Masters titles.
– How many comebacks? –
But all the focus was on Woods, and whether he can pull off the most miraculous comeback yet in a career marked as much by his gritty determination to defy pain as by his sublime skill.
Woods won the 2008 US Open with a broken leg, then battled through five back surgeries, including a spinal fusion, before he won his 15th major title at the 2019 Masters.
“I mean, how many comebacks has he had?” former Masters champion Jordan Spieth marvelled.
Former PGA Champion Justin Thomas says Woods’s game is “plenty, plenty good enough to play well”.
So Woods will once again defy the pain and try to defy the odds to match Jack Nicklaus’s record of six green jackets and edge closer to Nicklaus’s all-time record of 18 major titles.
He would become the third-oldest major winner in history and would surpass Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner by a matter of weeks.