Tiger factor a renewed phenomenon as Augusta awaits
Thousands line the fairways to see Woods and Mickelson share a practice round
Tiger Woods smiles on the 13th green during a practice round prior to the start of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
A Tuesday unlike any previous one – ever – at the Masters!
You see, this was the day when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, players who once found it hard to stay in the same room at the one time, decided it would be nice to play a practice round. Together! Friends, like. To shoot the breeze, hit some shots; even share a joke or two on the tee box.
For those spectators who gathered around the first tee, it was a case of being outmanoeuvred. For Woods, in a nice white shirt, and Mickelson, in a nicer long-sleeve shirt more akin to a corporate boardroom, joined Fred Couples and Thomas Pieters on the 10th tee to start their practice round. And soon the whispers turned to chatter, as spectators abandoned the first hole in favour of the downward trek of the 10th hole.
This is the Mickelson effect, but mainly the Woods factor. He’s back, and that anticipation of how Woods – a four-time winner but who spent the past two years as a television viewer rather than a participant – will feature in this 82nd edition of the Masters has hung in the air. Even the azaleas, you feel, are sucking in the sense of expectancy.
In a matter of months, Woods – who underwent spinal fusion surgery last year – has regenerated. He himself has used the word “miracle” to describe his comeback.
“It’s been a tough road,” conceded Woods, “the amount of times that I’ve fallen because my leg didn’t work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of times. Those were some really dark, dark times. The reason why I’m saying I am a walking miracle is that I don’t know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I. That’s incredible.
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“Some guys have said, ‘I need to fuse my back so I can hit it harder’. No, you don’t want to go through that! But that’s why I said that, it is a miracle. I went from a person who had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, anything, to now swinging the club 129 [miles per hour]. That is a miracle, isn’t it?”
What it means is that Woods has arrived here in Augusta National not as a curiosity, rather as a real live contender . . . . and his return has given the sport a renewed infusion of Wood’s X-Factor, with television ratings up, golf equipment sales up, and general interest levels also raised.
“This is a little bit like a Lazarus resurrection here with respect to where he was,” said Steve Mona, the chief executive officer of the World Golf Foundation, an organisation which aims to promote the sport globally and which controls the World Golf Hall of Fame. “Only last September he was talking about whether he would be able to comeback at all.”
Woods has geared up for the Masters with a carefully mapped itinerary that has seen him play five times on the PGA Tour. Apart from one missed cut at the Genesis Open, it has been a return that has exceeded expectations and features a runner-up finish behind Paul Casey in the Valspar Championship and a top-five in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Suddenly, golf’s television ratings in the United States shot up: with Woods in contention, NBC and Golf Channel reported that the final rounds of the Arnold Palmer and Valspar registered the highest ratings for a PGA Tour telecast, outside of the Majors, since the 2015 Wyndham Championship.
And Bridgestone Golf finally started getting some payback for their sponsorship of Woods who uses the company’s golf balls.
A reported 120 percent increase in sales year-on-year was attributed to Woods’s endorsements of the ball. As Angel Ilgan, chief executive of Bridgestone put it: “His endorsement is more valuable than all of the science and data that we throw out to the consumers. It is ridiculous we can show them hundreds and thousands of testings with robots and projectile guns that we’re the best ball, the most accurate ball; and the consumer doesn’t believe us until Tiger says, ‘yeah, that’s true’.”
The Tiger effect is, well, the Tiger effect. He has been the dominant player of his generation and, perhaps, that new-found bond with Mickelson best exemplifies the maturity of the relationship that exists.
But, under the skin, the competitive instincts are still just as they were: he’s not here simply to attend the Champions Dinner this time, his stay will last much longer than that.
“I really hope I’m playing my best golf. This is a tournament where experience does help a lot. I have played here, and I’ve won here not playing my absolute best; but there’s got to be a certain part of my game that’s one . . . . all those years that I’ve won, one part of my game has certainly stood out. And whether it is driving the ball like I did in 1997, or a couple of years where I really putted well or hitting my irons or a lot of greens, there’s got to be a certain part of my game that’s on. Hopefully it will be one of those weeks.”