The moment, unscripted as it was unexpected, came Monday afternoon on the well-manicured chipping green at Augusta National Golf Club.
Tiger Woods stood under a cloudy sky, gripped a wedge in his hands and began to dance. He had a pair of black headphones planted in his ears, a white Nike cap on his head, and a 300-song playlist cued up on his iPod. And, well, OK — maybe this wasn’t exactly dancing.
Woods bobbed his head in rhythm, and he bounced at the knee, and his shoulders appeared to roll a bit. In a technical sense, it was more grooving than dancing, and in Woods’ own view, it was something different.
“I wanted to just rock out,” Woods said here on Tuesday afternoon, two days before his return to professional golf at the 79th Masters.
Two months ago, Woods walked off the golf course at Torrey Pines in San Diego, a nagging lower back injury halting his season and forcing another sabbatical from the sport. You might remember that moment. That was the weekend when Woods, his body failing him again, made the curious remark that he was withdrawing, in part, because his glutes had failed to “activate.”
Now Woods has returned to the public stage — and to the Masters — a smiling, joking, genial Woods replacing the snarling, stoic and guarded champion of old. For more than 15 minutes Tuesday afternoon, Woods smiled and laughed through an extended press conference, poking fun at his age — he will amazingly turn 40 later this year — and extolling the virtues of fatherhood.
“I’m feeling older, there’s no doubt about that,” Woods said. “Try chasing around 6‑ and 7‑year‑olds all day, you start feeling it. But the good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better.”
This may indeed be a new Tiger Woods, and this may be a new career stage for an aging champion, who hasn’t won a major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open and hasn’t donned the green jacket at the Masters since 2005. But here at Augusta, nobody is quite sure how it’s going to go. It could be a disaster. It could be a triumph. But it’s also Woods, so it’s going to be a story.
“My guess is as good as yours,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion.
“I know as much as anybody, and I’m as curious, too,” said Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion.
“He’s still the story,” said Tom Watson. “At least until the tournament starts on Thursday.”
The second half of Woods’ career has been well documented by now. There was the off-course turmoil, a much-hyped return, and now years marked by injuries and a major-less drought. The latest injury, a balky back, struck in February as Woods struggled with a change in the release pattern of his swing. The technical issue ravaged Woods’ short-game, resulting in some disastrous chips that went viral on social media.
The reaction: Whoa, what’s going on with Tiger?
So when Woods returned home to Florida, he plotted a plan for his return. His body needed to be right. And so did his swing. This is where the dancing comes in.
When Woods was a kid, he says, he once glued an old Discman to a cassette-tape holder that would attach to his waist. The goal, of course, was to have some music to break up the monotony of marathon practices on the range and putting green. In recent weeks, as Woods rehabbed an ailing back, he would go to the range with his two young children, Sam and Charlie, cue up his music playlist, and spend hours crafting his return.
“I worked my (butt) off,” Woods says. “That's the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard. People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. But it was sunup to sundown.”
Perhaps this is a new Tiger Woods, mellowing and maturing as he approaches 40 years old. On Wednesday, he will take part in the par-3 tournament at the Masters for the first time in more than a decade. His kids will serve as honorary caddies.
But if Tiger has evolved, the golf landscape has changed as well. The Children of Tiger — the generation of young boys who grew up idolizing Woods — are now 20-somethings who are threatening to dominate the sport and keep Woods stuck on 14 career majors. This week, Rory McIlroy will attempt to complete the grand slam at the age of 25, the second youngest ever behind Woods. Woods has even noticed the trend, bringing up 21-year-old Jordan Spieth during his press conference on Wednesday.
“I won the Masters when Jordan was still in diapers,” Woods said. “That's the difference … guys are now younger, a whole other generation of kids are coming out. And the game has gotten bigger.”
And yet, this is Augusta National. This is place where Woods made history in 1997. This is the course he has conquered four different times. At the age of 39, Woods can’t quite let go of the past. And in some ways, Augusta National can’t either.
“They keep changing this place, it seems like every year,” Woods said. “And it looks exactly the same.”
The same, of course, could be said about Woods. All the swing changes. All the comebacks. All the injuries. Striding down the fairway at Augusta, Woods still looks like the champion who last won here in 2005. He’s not that player, of course. Not anymore. But for a moment Monday, lost in his music, dancing on the chipping green, Woods appeared relaxed and comfortable, ready to embark on the next phase of his career.
“Times have changed,” Woods said. “But still, practicing for hours on end, it's nice to have a little bit of tunes.”