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MASTERS: Why this Tiger Woods return is different

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods shouldn’t be here.

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Wasn’t the 2019 Masters supposed to be the final chapter? The image of Woods, roaring in victory with his arms thrown wide and his head thrown back, instantly overwrote a quarter-century of indelible images. It was his greatest comeback and the happy ending rolled into one.

We should have known better.

Woods has been showing us for a lifetime that his story has just one author and plenty of plot twists. The latest chapter begins Thursday at Augusta National, when he tees off at 10:34 a.m. in his first official tournament in two years, just 13 months after doctors considered amputating his right leg.

The pre-tournament scene has been unmatched, with interest and adoration for the 15-time major champion somehow surpassing the frenzy three years ago.

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“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Fred Couples, after playing another nine holes with Woods and Justin Thomas on Wednesday morning. “I’ve been in the last group here, won here … they wanted to see the big guy, and they saw him, and they saw good golf.”

The galleries following Woods’ Monday practice round rivalled a Sunday afternoon.

Of course, there is a minority of people who are angry at the wall-to-wall Tiger coverage, somehow blind to the fact the excitement at Augusta National is nearly bursting the gates. Many of the same folks are scoffing at his chance to contend this week (I’ve read the emails), and of course, they could be right; but the magic that sports fans feel, this thrill of anticipation, is because every one of us knows it’s possible. The excitement at the golf course isn’t simply because Tiger is here, what has the place boiling over is that, after a quarter-century, we know why he is here. And Tiger Woods is no ceremonial golfer.

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“If I can still compete at the highest level, I’m going to, and if I feel like I can still win, I’m going to play,” Woods said Tuesday. “But if I feel like I can’t, then you won’t see me out here. You guys know me better than that.”

Inside that answer is the magic of the week, and also the answer to the powerful hold Woods has over us. We live in a time when people are famous for being famous, so the lines between real and fake can be blurred. Woods keeps it clear. Because through everything, his personality has never superseded his golf. As larger than life the person is, his golf has always been bigger.

Anyone who writes about Tiger in a major publication gets nasty emails. Of course, we question the true motives behind these opinions, but a handful of angry readers want us to explain Woods’ personal life, or his driving record, or perhaps his prescriptions. They are upset that, for the most part, nobody but them seems to care. Unlike many modern athletes, Woods has never made it about his life. He hasn’t invited you into his world, he has always put up a huge ‘Keep Out’ sign, and said, ‘see you at the golf course.’

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Twenty years ago that attitude was off-putting, these days it’s actually refreshing. In this age of star athletes yearning for likes on social media, before the retire early and get into broadcasting, Woods’ singleminded life-long pursuit of greatness, as cold as it has been at times, is resonating deeply with people. Which brings us back to the 2019 Masters win that seemed like the finish line.

The Woods we saw for months after that emotional victory seemed to be a changed man. Sure, he had already softened some in recent years, there were more smiles in interviews and more friends on the course; but after finally winning his first major since 2008, he finally seemed ready to take his foot off the gas and embrace the warm blanket of nostalgia. He barely showed up for the next month’s PGA Championship, still floating on clouds from Augusta. Then came the accident, and it was surely over.

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Until now.

There’s always a vacuum when he temporarily leaves the sport, but this time seemed different because the fire might be gone; not extinguished, but finally burnt right through. That’s what had 40,000 people desperate to catch a glimpse of Woods on a Monday.

Don’t let anyone fool you, nobody knows if Woods will contend this week. His game looks great, but it’s completely untested. Augusta is the best course for him to dominate, but it can’t be walked on one leg. He’s a 50/1 longshot to win, but his father Earl taught him that only one opinion mattered.

Tiger was asked if he thinks he can win.

“I do,” he answered.

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