AUGUSTA — The gates to Augusta National opened a little after 7 a.m. Monday. It didn't feel as though Masters week started until just before 3 p.m.
Tiger Woods was on the first tee, and this was no time to be shopping for shirts and caps or standing in line for pimento cheese sandwiches. That much was evident by the biggest golf crowd this year on one hole except for the circus par-3 16th at the Phoenix Open.
Woods consumes attention at every Masters he plays. It's been that way since the first of his five green jackets he won 25 years ago.
Now it's even greater under these unusual circumstances.
He hasn't played against the best in 17 months, not since the 2020 Masters in November, while recovering from a car crash that once looked as though it might end his career. And still to be determined is whether he plays this one.
Woods has said it would be a “game-time” decision whether his battered right leg and ankle can handle walking and competing over 18 holes at Augusta National.
“There's always buzz around this place,” Billy Horschel said. “But there's just another level of buzz to see him and see him play. I've thought about it in the past, and I may be on the first tee watching him tee off if my tee works out and everything, just because it's a special moment.”
It's not as though this Masters was devoid of drama.
Rory McIlroy gets another crack at the career Grand Slam. He spent Monday in an Irish fourball alongside Shane Lowry, Padraig Harrington and Seamus Power. They have eight majors among them; Power is making his Masters debut.
Bryson DeChambeau is back, even though he says his doctors don't recommend it.
DeChambeau said he first hurt his left hip two years ago while speed training — swinging as fast as his body allowed — and slipping on concrete.
Then, he didn't work on finger strength, and that led to a popping sound in his wrist before his TV match against Brooks Koepka in Las Vegas last November. That led to a hairline fracture of his hamate bone in his left hand. And then he slipped on marble while playing table tennis is Saudi Arabia in early February, went horizontal and landed on his hand and his hip.
He declared himself 80%, though he liked the way he felt coming into the Masters. DeChambeau hasn't make a 36-hole cut since The Northern Trust in late August — then again, he has played only eight times since then, six of those tournaments without a cut.
“The past few weeks have been very, very difficult on me, not playing well and not hitting it anywhere near where I know I should be hitting it,” he said. “Yelling ‘Fore!’ off the tee every time is just not fun. It’s very difficult on your mental psyche as well.”
Playing the Masters was a “huge risk” a few weeks ago and a decision he said his doctors did not recommend. He was day to day until he felt comfortable giving it a go.
“Different situation than Tiger, obviously, but it was definitely a day-by-day process of figuring out if I could do this,” he said.
So much goes back to Woods, who had broken bones in his right leg and ankle from the car crash outside Los Angeles in February 2021 that left him immobilized for three months and not swinging a club until last November.
Brooks Koepka knows a thing or two about playing with injury, even if not as many were people were paying attention.
Koepka had surgery on his right knee three weeks before the Masters last year and still was determined to play. It was so bad he couldn't crouch to read putts. Koepka is finally back at full strength, though he still hasn't won since the Phoenix Open more than a year ago.
He is more concerned with his own game that what Woods has going on, though Koepka can appreciate the walk Woods is facing better than most players.
“Look, I'm happy he’s becoming healthier and able to play golf,” Koepka said. “We need him, the game needs him, everybody needs him, the fans need him, all that stuff. But at the end of the day everybody is just out here competing. I’m worried about myself and I’m sure everybody else is worried about themselves.”
Koepka said he required cortisone shots just to play. Throw in the hours to prepare before the round and to recover after the round, and that has led to some long days.
“I understand what he’s up against. It’ll be difficult. But if anybody can do it, it’s him,” Koepka said. “I don't know everything he’s going through. His was a lot worse than mine, so I’m not trying to compare it. I just know it’s difficult walking this place when you don’t have the same body parts you’re used to."