By TIM DAHLBERG – AP Sports columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Excitement built quickly as Tiger Woods chipped a bag of balls, Bubba Watson missed a fist bump and headed to the practice tee to hit a handful of easy drives. A few minutes later, he emerged from the clubhouse lawn to thunderous applause as thousands of fans crowded around him, phones held high, desperate for a glimpse of golf history unfolding before them.
On a beautiful day at Augusta National, seeing Woods once again at the first tee with a driver in hand was probably the most beautiful sight of all.
It was certainly for a group of four University of Virginia women golfers who found their way close enough to the tee to take a selfie of sorts with Woods in the distance behind. They let out a screech and the fans crowded 30 deep around the tee and all the way down to the first fairway screamed with delight.
Meanwhile, defending champion Hideki Matsuyama passed the first tee almost unnoticed. This was Tiger’s day, just like this is Tiger’s tournament, and if anyone thought otherwise, they must have been to the merchandise shop to buy souvenirs instead.
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Yes, it was just Monday. But aside from the blue shirt that Woods was wearing, it really did feel like a Sunday afternoon.
He may be world No. 973, but Woods is consistently No. 1 at Augusta National, where he won his first major 25 years ago and has since won four other Green Jackets — including an unlikely 2019 triumph surpassed only by Woods himself could.
That was magical. Simply teeing off here borders on the unbelievable.
Nevertheless, the questions continue. The slight limp with which Woods walked up the steep hill on the first hole prompted even more.
Will he be back at an opening tee at the Masters on Thursday? Will the latest comeback for the greatest player of his time be the biggest comeback of his career as he continues to recover from a car accident that nearly took off one of his legs and could very well have killed him?
No one outside of Wood’s inner circle is leaving it on. But the odds are getting better every day.
Woods himself called it a “gametime decision” in a weekend tweet that indicated “yes” rather than “no.” He played on the back nine on Sunday and came back for the front nine on Monday afternoon when fans were allowed onto the court for the first time.
Running four days straight on a course difficult enough for players with two good legs could be a challenge. But anyone who remembers Woods winning the 2008 US Open in Torrey Pines on a bad leg knows enough not to count him.
And his colleagues believe that he will at least try.
“I would be surprised if anyone else had ever lived,” Max Homa said Monday. “Well, no, I’m not surprised. I’m amazed It’s a true testament to his work ethic as we all know what he does on the golf course, how hard he works and the stories and legends that exist. “
“It’s a big championship. It’s Augusta,” added Brooks Koepka. “No matter how much pain you are in, you will find a way. He will find a way. If anyone can do it, they can.”
That it has been just over 13 months since Woods was involved in an accident in California with his 4×4 before he returned to the Masters is indeed remarkable. But Woods is a notorious hard worker and this isn’t the first comeback in a career derailed by various injuries and marital troubles at different times.
The odds are against him – he’s 80-1 to win in Las Vegas – but the odds of him even getting to that point would have been astronomical after breaking his leg.
Woods said a few months ago that his crushed right leg looks different than his left. But the most important thing right now is how his game looks and when I watched Woods practice ahead of his nine holes on Monday it looked suspiciously like the old Woods.
Still, the unknowns emerge, both for Woods and anyone thinking of making some long bucks with his high odds.
Will he tee off on Thursday? If so, can he make the cut? Will his leg run for four days on a golf course that’s a lot hillier than it looks on TV?
All good questions, the biggest of which has already been answered.
“He’s here, right?” said Bryson DeChambeau. “I guess it’s quite a return.”
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