by Jim Slater
Augusta - Tiger Woods practiced before thousands of supportive spectators on Monday at Augusta National ahead of the 86th Masters, where he hopes to make his first start since a car crash 14 months ago left him with severe right leg injuries.
The prospect of an astonishing comeback by the 46-year-old US star, who says it will be a "game-time decision" if he tees off Thursday, built an electric atmosphere at the famed course, which welcomed a full crowd for the first time since Woods' 2019 win due to Covid-19 limits.
"Tiger just walked out of the clubhouse to scenes and atmosphere like you've never seen before," three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo of England tweeted. "Patrons cheering and flocking to cram around the putting green. And it's only Monday at the Masters."
Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 US Open champion, was practicing his massive tee shots when the roar erupted.
"From the driving range, we could hear the loud roar when he came out of the clubhouse up to that first tee," he said. "That was pretty special to see, or hear at least."
With fans cheering in support, Woods played nine holes with 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas and 1992 Masters winner Fred Couples, who said Woods looked "phenomenal" and "very impressive" in the session.
"To go what he has gone through, to be playing today -- I'm sure he's going to tee it up Thursday," Couples said. "Now it's just the walking part. If he can walk around here for 72 holes, he'll contend."
Woods was hospitalised for weeks and unable to walk for months after the February 2021 automobile accident, saying he was lucky to be alive and not have his leg amputated.
So it's no wonder players and fans alike were thrilled by the prospect the 15-time major winner might make chase another major triumph.
"It's exciting there's the possibility he's going to play this week," said 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia. "I really hope he does. No matter what, it would just be epic."
Scott warned that if he plays, Woods is a true threat to win a sixth Masters green jacket - matching the all-time record of Jack Nicklaus - and 16th career major title, two shy of Nicklaus's all-time mark.
"I've learned long ago never doubt the guy," Scott said. "If he can get around, which seems to be the question, you can't doubt his golf."
Tiger Woods... leaving the practice area and heading to the 1st tee with Justin Thomas and Freddie Couples... Couples' caddie...looked at me and said with a smile...— Zach Klein (@ZachKleinWSB) April 4, 2022
"You think Tiger's here?" pic.twitter.com/DVCZXXVCGy
Woods required major rehabilitation just to play in an event with his son last December, when he could use a cart and didn't have to walk the entire course.
However, after giving no timetable for a return, Woods played an 18-hole practice round last Tuesday at Augusta National, testing his fitness to walk the hilly course.
'Not surprised, amazed'
"I'm not surprised. I'm amazed," said 37th-ranked Max Homa. "I'd be surprised if it was anyone else that has ever lived. It's a true testament to his work ethic. It's remarkable really."
A quarter-century after Woods won his first major title by an astonishing 12 strokes at Augusta National to launch "Tigermania," he is again thrilling the Georgia crowd after spectators were banned in 2020 for his title defence - the most recent official event Woods has played.
Spectators lined the first hole three and four deep to watch Woods, showing how much it means to them to have Woods even attempt such an incredible return.
"If I'm in his shoes, I don't do everything I've done for the last few months and show up here and not play," world number 13 Billy Horschel said. "The only thing stopping him, I think, would be if he gets some kind of injury.
Look at this photo (Getty Images) of Tiger Woods at the Masters.— Andy Nesbitt (@anezbitt) April 4, 2022
On a monday.
The needle. pic.twitter.com/hnYBcZDCO0
"I'm guessing he's going to play and I'm going to be just as excited as everyone else to see him tee it up out here on Thursday."
With storms forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday, Monday could mark the last opportunity for Woods and other players to test themselves over the record 7 510-yard, par-72 layout.
Woods, who fell to 973 in Monday's world rankings, has already made an extraordinary comeback at the Masters, winning in 2019 for his first major triumph since 2008 after spinal fusion surgery.
Should Woods play and manage a fairytale triumph on Sunday, he would become the oldest Masters winner and third-oldest major champion in golf history, trailing only last year's PGA Championship victory at age 50 by Phil Mickelson and Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA at age 48.
At 46 years, three months and 11 days, Woods would be a day older than Old Tom Morris when he won the 1867 British Open and three weeks older than Nicklaus when he won the 1986 Masters.