Tiger Woods is playing the Masters, and he’s playing to win

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​AUGUSTA, Ga. – The answer was painfully obvious, but the question still needed to be asked anyway.

Do you think you can win?

“I do.”

Tiger Woods is here, after all.

And it was as if he had never left, as if the past 14 grueling months didn’t happen, as if he hadn’t suffered career-threatening injuries in that one-car accident in Southern California on Feb. 23, 2021.

Even for an athlete who has been battling injuries for the better part of two decades, this has been a hellacious year. The hospital stint when he said doctors considered amputation. The months of inactivity at home. The transition from wheelchair to crutches to short walks. The painful recovery, the tedious rehab, the frustrating lack of progress.

Tiger believes he can win the Masters

“I’ve worked hard,” he said, but hard work has never been a deterrent. It’s the challenge that drives him. Rory McIlroy said Woods doesn’t just like proving people wrong – he likes proving himself wrong, too. And without 72 holes to satiate him, recovery milestones became the competition – and he’s about to win a major one.

“Nobody has a work ethic and determination like him,” Justin Thomas said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of setting your mind to something and setting a goal for yourself and proving to yourself and everybody that you can do it. It’s unbelievable the stuff he can do given everything.”

Woods is playing in this 86th Masters. Officially, he was a “game-time decision.” Then his status was upgraded Tuesday, when he told us that “as of right now” his plan was to compete. But there’s no need to be coy.

He doesn’t play 27 holes in one day last week if he isn’t playing.

He doesn’t show up to grind here for three consecutive days if he isn’t playing.

Full-field tee times from the 86th Masters Tournament

He doesn’t endure the hours and hours of pre- and post-round treatment and therapy just to show up here, slap it around for a few days, think, Nah, can’t do it, and jet home.

He’s playing.

And if Tiger Woods is playing, well, then Tiger Woods believes he can win.

“I can hit it just fine,” he said. “I don’t have any qualms about what I can do physically from a golf standpoint.”

That much has been evident in the three days of practice here at Augusta National. He has plenty of pop. His ball speed is back in that sweet spot, in the mid-170s. He can vary his trajectories. Shape shots both ways. Rely on a wide array of nifty short-game shots and a rock-solid putting stroke that, after so much time away, seem as sharp as ever.

“It’s plenty, plenty good enough to play well,” Thomas said.

Added Fred Couples: “He looked phenomenal.”

As ever.

But that’s not the challenge.

“It’s the walking that is the hard part,” Woods said. “This is not normally an easy walk to begin with. Now, given the condition that my leg is in, it gets even more difficult. You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it’s going to be a tough challenge, and it’s a challenge that I’m up for.”

Tiger explains recovery going into practice for the Masters

He has showed that willingness over his long, legendary and injury-riddled career. The 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. The comeback season after fusion surgery. The 2019 Masters when he was worked on into the wee hours of the night and then early in the morning, when it all came together for that fifth green jacket. Now, after the accident, after the traumatic injuries, after he sustained open fractures to both the upper and lower portions of his right leg and needed a metal rod to stabilize it, his physiotherapists and trainers have an even more exhaustive task. They’ve all done it before. And they’re all up for it again.

“It’s not something I haven’t done,” Woods said, “but the times have gotten longer on both sides.”

And the pain?

He chuckled to himself. “Yeah, there is,” he said. “There is each and every day.”

And he’ll play through pain here, too, though how much Woods is unlikely to ever say, the product of his military upbringing. He’ll feel it everywhere at Augusta National: on uphill lies, downhill lies, sidehill lies. He’ll feel it scaling the eighth, ninth and 18th fairways. He’ll feel it heading down the second, 10th and 15th fairways. As he said Tuesday, the only level lies here are the 18 tee boxes.

Treatment can alleviate some of the inflammation, and those metal FootJoy spikes can offer ankle stability, but this is Woods’ new reality. His doctors have told him that eventually he’ll feel better and play in less discomfort. But the mobility issues will remain, probably forever. It hasn’t hampered his play. Not yet, anyway.

“I feel like I can still compete at the highest level,” he said. “If I feel like I can still win, I’m going to play. If I feel like I can’t, then you won’t see me out here.

“I don’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it. That’s the attitude I’ve had. There will be a day when it won’t happen, and I’ll know when that is, but physically the challenge this week is I don’t have to worry about the ball-striking or the game of golf – it’s actually just the hills out here. That’s going to be the challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge of a major marathon.”

Woods was asked what constitutes a successful week at the Masters, and he allowed himself at least a moment of reflection.

“I think that the fact I was able to get myself here to this point is a success,” he said.

He shouted out his surgeons and his physiotherapists and his trainers just for allowing him the opportunity to continue his career at age 46, against all odds.

“Thankful,” he said. “Very, very thankful.”

But now that he’s here, now that he’s 48 hours from game time, now that it’s obvious that he’s not just going to play but probably play well … he had little trouble shifting into hyper-competitive mode.

“I feel like I can still do it,” he said.

And it’d be unwise to doubt him.