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Playing the Masters Is Different With Tiger Woods in Your Group

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Joaquín Niemann couldn’t hear his caddie.

He had made one other Masters Tournament. He had navigated the thicket of spectators. Now, because the 23-year-old Chilean stood at Augusta National Golf Club’s first tee on Thursday, Gary Matthews, who was carrying Niemann’s bag, may as well have been anyplace else.

Such is life playing alongside Tiger Woods.

It was only weeks ago that Woods, whose doctors weighed amputating his leg after a automotive wreck last yr, seemed certain to miss the Masters. But his decision to play within the tournament, his first skilled competition since November 2020, immediately transformed how spectators would follow the motion — and any player accompanying the five-time Masters winner at Augusta National.

Woods’s presence in a pairing or group has long defined the playing environment around his slice of nearly any tournament, along with his fans, and very often just the curious, offering up a barrage of cheers, commentary, cameras, bustle and scrutiny. The highlight, it seems, only barely tilts away from him, if it does in any respect.

And so the chaos, or whatever counts for chaos on a golf course, could make Fred Couples — a Masters champion, once the world’s top-rated golfer and a hero to baby boomer duffers — look more like an afterthought than a number one man. It could actually render Stewart Cink, a British Open champion and one in every of the best golfers of his era, a merely thrilling bonus, or Francesco Molinari, also a British Open winner, something lower than a pairing’s marquee name.

“It’s way different while you play with Tiger anywhere, and Augusta National is not any different,” said Cink, who has often had an up-close view of Woods on the Masters, and who had a hole in a single on No. 16 on Friday.

Woods, who earned the primary of his Masters green jackets 25 years ago, has long commanded one in every of the biggest Augusta galleries, with another champions certain that a “Tiger roar” through the pines simply sounds different than cheering for other players. And with Phil Mickelson, one in every of Woods’s rivals for attention and affection, absent from this yr’s Masters, Woods is much more the player with the best following around Augusta this week.

The frenzy of this particularly intense week began well before Niemann, Woods and Louis Oosthuizen found themselves peering down the 445-yard No. 1 on Thursday. Couples, who played in his thirty seventh Masters this week, joined Woods for a pair of practice rounds and was left agog on Monday, the primary day the course was open to spectators.

“I’ve never seen anything prefer it,” he marveled. Couples said he found a technique to get to the tee where Woods’s fans “were only 4 deep.”

He added, “They desired to see the massive guy, and so they saw him, and so they saw good golf. He gets that here on a regular basis.”

But frequency doesn’t necessarily make the scenario easier for others pursuing their very own ambitions.

“The largest thing is just the energy in the group and the intensity of the reactions and the scrambling for position,” said Cink, whose best finish at Augusta was a tie for third in 2008. “There’s loads of movement on the market.”

Cink said that Woods had routinely tried to maintain it a good fight by allowing others to complete playing a hole before he did, keeping the group in place just slightly while longer.

“Once you play with him, it’s busy, it’s noisy,” said Molinari, who won the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie when he was paired with Woods and, the following yr, played with Woods on Sunday at Augusta. “I don’t think it makes a giant difference if it’s here or elsewhere.”

Woods, mighty as he’s, has only a lot control.

On Thursday, the spectators began to amass around the primary tee box long before Woods emerged from the clubhouse to begin his tournament. A drone flew overhead. No less than one man shouted “let’s go Tiger!” no less than twice, though it was hard to inform in a crowd that seemed about 25-deep in places so people could see Woods (or perhaps just the highest of his cap) as he took his first shot.

Niemann and Oosthuizen received polite, restrained welcomes from the group, which began to interrupt up as soon as Woods, who hit first, finished swinging his driver, all the higher to get a head start down the green or to the second green, to see Woods again.

The din quieted enough on later holes that Niemann said he could, in the long run, hear Matthews as he played his technique to a three-under-par 69. He said he had even come to seek out pleasure in the large crowds.

“They were at all times telling me to make certain you are attempting to complete before Tiger, that way the people don’t start moving,” Niemann said. “But they were really respectful, so it was an enjoyable round.”

Daniel Berger suggested that a worse fate than being paired with Woods was playing just in front of him.

“In case you are one or two ahead of him, then it’s at all times a struggle with people attempting to run as much as see him,” said Berger, who debuted on the Masters in 2016.

Padraig Harrington, one other British Open winner who has played with Woods, had the same assessment.

“It’s very difficult when you’re the group ahead of him,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult since the crowds are watching him and so they’re moving on to see him. Once you’re fiddling with him 20 deep, you’ll be able to’t hear a thing because there’s a lot happening.”

But Harrington, who has won two Opens and a PGA Championship, had no complaints about life with Woods as a playing partner.

“He’s actually one in every of the best guys to play with through the years,” he said. “He’s a quite simple guy to play with. He plays golf. He says ‘good shot’ only while you hit a very good shot. There isn’t a messing around, no rubbish about it.”

Practice rounds are, in fact, less pressurized, and Couples, who has long been near Woods and is now within the twilight of his profession, signaled that he sometimes plays the court jester. It appeared that way this week when Woods played with Couples, who won at Augusta in 1992, and Justin Thomas, who was born the following yr and was 3-years-old when Woods first won the Masters.

“I wish to tell them stories, but often on the tees it’s very quiet and I allow them to do their thing, and as soon as we step down the green there might be a story about this guy or that guy or me or Tiger,” Couples, who said that Woods and Thomas make him hit last, recalled this week. “Then we laugh until we get to a ball.”

The crowds are at all times thick, and at all times watching, and at all times bouncing. But Couples said there’s a advantage of fiddling with Woods and Thomas, all the theatrics and distractions aside.

“It’s nice because they only wish to play nine holes,” Couples, 62, said. “I’m great with nine holes.”

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