No matter what you think of Tiger Woods, his greatest achievement will be playing this Masters

·4 min read

AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the most enticing days in sports in a very long time dawns Thursday on the lush emerald fairways of Augusta National Golf Club. That is where, at precisely 10:34 a.m. local time, a man who thought he might lose his leg or never walk again will begin one of the most improbable quests in sports history.

Ranked 973rd in the world, Tiger Woods, 46, is playing in the Masters, barring an overnight setback of some sort. It will have been 408 days since he wrecked his SUV and shattered his right leg on Feb. 23, 2021. A year ago right now, he was in the midst of three consecutive months of lying in a hospital bed.

On Tuesday, he said he thinks he can win the tournament, that his golf game is fine, but walking the hills on the course will be his ultimate challenge.

What an incredible story this is, one for the ages, no matter how it plays out.

“It's just truly amazing,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday. “I don't even know how else to say it. I would have probably taken some pretty high odds a few weeks ago whether or not he would be here. But when you think about it, it really shouldn't surprise us. He is one of the most determined, dedicated athletes that I have ever seen in my life.”

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Tiger Woods talks with caddie Joe LaCava during a practice round at Augusta National on Wednesday.
Tiger Woods talks with caddie Joe LaCava during a practice round at Augusta National on Wednesday.

No matter what you think of Tiger — love him or despise him — of all of his achievements and accomplishments, this is the most remarkable. How he recovered so quickly, how he says he is playing golf so well again, how he got himself ready to compete here this week, it’s the stuff of legend.

Woods already is widely regarded as one of the two greatest male golfers in the world (Jack Nicklaus is the other), and one of the best athletes to ever play any sport. But Thursday, just by showing up and playing in the first round of the major tournament he loves the most, he takes his reputation, if not his game, to a whole new level.

For 25 years, Woods has transcended his sport, reaching into our culture in a way Nicklaus never did. A man of color in the lily-white, country-club world of golf? He always was so interesting, and important. And that nickname? Tiger! Of course grandmothers planned their Sunday afternoons around his tee time and came running to the TV set when he was hitting his next shot.

But then came the personal scandals, plenty of them. Three incidents involving driving: two of them ending in collisions of varying degrees, one in an embarrassing and revealing dash-cam video of a stumbling, impaired, clearly troubled man. The second car wreck, the one in 2021, was far worse than the first, the run-in with the fire hydrant in front of his house that triggered his epic fall from grace and ruined his marriage in November 2009.

Yet, from all of that, he kept coming back. He came back, again and again. How many comebacks can one man have? Has any elite athlete ever had more drive or desire? He has won five Masters, yet his thirst to return, to play and yes, to win, is unquenchable. How is that possible? Have we ever seen anyone quite like this?

Because of this over-the-top story, and because it’s Tiger, this will be one of the most watched Thursday rounds of golf ever. (Friday’s will be too, as long as his leg and stamina hold up.) What a gift that is to the game, and to the Masters. The laser focus on Tiger means that no one is paying attention right now to Phil Mickelson and his devastating fall from grace after his controversial comments about Saudi Arabia and a Saudi-backed rival golf league.

Ridley said Mickelson texted him about a month ago to say he wasn’t going to be coming to the 2022 Masters. “We did not disinvite Phil,” Ridley said.

Back then, it looked like this Masters would be without both Phil and Tiger. And then, a sports miracle unfolded. Tiger was coming back. A once-edgy and unpleasant young man had become kinder and more appreciative. Having witnessed his life without golf, he desperately wanted another chance to keep it.

Asked to choose one word to reflect on his life from February 2021 to now, Tiger paused. “Thankful. Yeah, very, very thankful.”

Tiger has never spoken like that before. We have never seen anything quite like this before. 10:34 a.m. ET Thursday can’t get here fast enough.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Masters Tournament: Tiger Woods' game is next level just by showing up