At the Masters, Tiger Woods Begins to Show Acceptance

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods has many kinds of smiles.

Some are genuinely welcoming. Some are a cultivated response, a performance learned from decades in the spotlight. Some, when he is about to say something barbed, are meant to be caustic. And some are a form of defiance, a reflex when he feels he is being challenged.

At a news conference on the eve of last year’s Masters Tournament, reporters were treated to the last of those looks — a grinning but pugnacious Woods. When asked if he could win that week, roughly a year after a horrific car crash nearly cost him his right leg, Woods answered curtly: “I wouldn’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it.”

The smile turned to a smirk.

It is now a year later. Two days before his 25th Masters, Woods, 47, has learned a new kind of smile, that of the dignified aging champion who is all too aware of his limited physical capabilities and an ever narrowing window to win a 16th major championship. He still yearns for that victory and has lost no fight for the cause, but several times on Tuesday Woods sounded as if he was trying to gracefully acquiesce to a fate he may have never before contemplated.

“The ability and endurance of what my leg will do going forward will never be the same,” he said. “I can’t prepare and can’t play as many tournaments as I like. But that’s my future, and that’s OK. I’m OK with that.”

Woods admitted that when he now comes to Augusta National, he wonders if it will be the last time as a competitor. “I don’t know how many more I have in me,” he said.

Most telling, after a nine-hole practice round Tuesday with his longtime buddy, Fred Couples, 63, Woods joked that he was not far from joining Couples on the 50-and-over PGA Tour Champions circuit, where competitors ride in golf carts and skip the miles of walking that send pain shooting up Woods’s right leg.

With a laughing smile, Woods said: “I’ve got three more years from where I’ll get the little buggy and be out there with Fred. But until then, no buggy.”

Later in his news conference, while addressing a proposed rule that may inhibit how far the ball played by professionals will fly, he was asked how the new dictum might affect him. The new rule would not be imposed until 2026.

Woods snickered playfully: “By the time it takes effect, I may be long gone. As I said, I may be in the buggy and off we go.”

Wood repeatedly explained Tuesday that his right leg, surgically rebuilt in the hours after his high-speed, tumbling car wreck outside Los Angeles in February 2021, aches even more than it did last year in competition, when he sometimes needed to use one of his irons like a cane to walk from shot to shot. At the P.G.A. Championship last May, Woods nearly collapsed into a practice area bunker when he stumbled and lost his balance. He saved himself by using one of his clubs as a support. But not long afterward, after shooting the highest one-round score of his 22 P.G.A. Championship appearances, Woods withdrew from the event.

During his practice round on Tuesday, Woods limped noticeably, especially when ascending Augusta National’s many hills. Walking downhill was no easier. He slowed as if he was worried about his leg buckling and winced periodically.

“I can hit a lot of shots but the difficulty for me is going to be the walking,” he conceded. “I wish it could be easier.”

There was only one moment Tuesday when Woods showed a version of his old bravado.

When asked if some of the favorites at this year’s Masters, like Woods’s good friends Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, still view him as a threat to win this week, Woods mostly demurred. Woods is known for tutoring McIlroy and Thomas, neither of whom have won the Masters, in the nuances of the devilish Augusta National layout.

“Well, I don’t know — threat or not — I just think it’s understanding, picking some guys’ brains and figuring out what they need to do to win this tournament,” he said.

Woods said he was schooled similarly by Couples, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

“That’s what this tournament allows us to do, to pass on knowledge and gain knowledge from the past and apply it,” he said.

But the original question lingered. Woods paused.

“Whether I’m a threat to them or not, who knows?” Woods said with maybe the slightest impish expression. “People probably didn’t think I was a threat in 2019 either, but it kind of turned out OK.”

In 2019, 11 years after his last major championship victory, Woods won his fifth Masters title.

It is a memory, along with so many others in Woods’s nearly 30 years as a public figure, that has kept sports fans flocking to watch him play. It was no different late Tuesday morning as Woods, who spent a long stretch as the world’s most famous athlete, played the final hole of his practice round.

The ninth green at Augusta National, on a hilltop in front of the sprawling clubhouse, was surrounded by only a smattering of fans as Woods hit his last tee shot of the day 460 yards away. But suddenly, like passengers disembarking from a vast caravan of buses, a horde of fans appeared from around a bend in the course and began to clamber up the steep hill from the ninth fairway to the putting surface.

Within minutes, the crowd enveloping the green was a dozen deep. Applause erupted when Woods’s second shot from about 160 yards landed safely about 15 feet from the hole. As Woods walked, or limped, toward the green, people pushed against the ropes restraining the gallery in an effort, it seemed, just to be closer to him. Adults held children on their shoulders so they could see above the throng, while others stood on their tiptoes.

Once reaching the green, Woods was cheered but as soon as he began to practice his putting from various spots, the congregation fell silent. Woods’s putter making contact with his golf ball could be heard in the quiet from 75 feet away.

Finally, when finished, Woods doffed his hat and raised it above his head as an ovation erupted all around him.

He smiled.

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