TIGER WOODS returns to the Masters, no longer a surprise as it was a year ago but no less a rare appearance.
This will be only his third tournament against elite competition since he remarkably hobbled his way through 72 holes at Augusta National.
For Rory McIlroy, this might be his best chance to finally get that green jacket and complete the career Grand Slam. He is playing some of his best golf. His popularity is higher than ever as he has become a powerful voice in reshaping the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Tour.
That alone should be enough to raise the anticipation for the Masters, not that it ever needs much help. But so much has changed since Scottie Scheffler capped his amazing run with a green jacket—on the course and in the courtroom.
Woods, McIlroy and Scheffler are headliners who now share the stage with a story that has consumed and divided an otherwise genteel game. They will face 18 players no longer welcome on the PGA Tour because they defected to Saudi-funded LIV Golf.
“For a golf fan, it’s Tiger coming. You have the LIV-PGA Tour mashup at the Masters, which is a traditional environment. It’s going to be a media frenzy,” Xander Schauffele said.
“There will be a ton of questions about digs here and there between the two tours. I think it will be a huge mosh pit of everything. For a golf fan, I think it will be awesome.”
Will the topic of conversation under the huge oak tree outside the Augusta National clubhouse be about the lengthening of the par-five 13th or the latest motion filed in an antitrust lawsuit between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour?
And who wouldn’t pay to be upstairs in the clubhouse on Tuesday night for the annual Masters Club dinner for past champions, seven of them now with LIV Golf. As defending champion, Scheffler is in charge of the menu, not keeping the peace.
“I keep trying to get Scottie to address the elephant in the room, but I don’t think he’s going to,” Jordan Spieth said with a laugh. “I keep poking him: ‘It’s your job to address the elephant in the room when you speak. It’s not just a thank-you.’ I don’t think he’s biting. He doesn’t bite on a lot of what I have to say.”
Indeed, this really could be a Masters unlike any other.
Dustin Johnson was thought to be on the fence about leaving for LIV Golf out of concern he wouldn’t be able to return to Augusta National, where he set the scoring record in 2020. He left for LIV in June for a signing fee reported to be in the $150 million range.
And any concerns about playing—for Johnson and everyone else—were put to rest in December when Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said the invitation list would not change regardless of where players made their living. At least not for this year.
Ridley also made it clear he wasn’t happy about the state of golf since the rival league—run by Greg Norman, paid for by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund—came along. He referenced nine Masters champions who had become golfing heroes. Conspicuously missing from his list was three-time winner Phil Mickelson, once a popular figure in golf.
“They have shown respect for those who came before them and blazed a trail for future generations. Golf is better because of them,” Ridley said. “Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it.”
Most PGA Tour players have not seen the likes of Johnson, Mickelson and Brooks Koepka since the British Open. Cameron Smith won the claret jug and then joined LIV six weeks later.
“Inside the ropes, even the people who have scuffles, it’s just a working environment,” Schauffele said. “It will be cool to have everyone back in the same office.”
No one is quite sure what to expect. Most LIV players have competed no more than nine times since St. Andrews in 54-hole events with 48-man fields.
Their world ranking has plummeted because LIV still doesn’t get points. Johnson was No. 16 in the world when he left St. Andrews. Now he is at No. 68. Koepka dropped out of the top 100 in the world (No. 111) for the first time in 10 years.
“Just because the guys aren’t ranked, they’re still top-ranked players, and us pros know that,” Schauffele said. “When some of those boys are playing well, they’re hard to beat. Some of them left when they were hot, some of them left a little cold in terms of performance. But we know how good everyone is.”
Another question leading to the 87th Masters Tournament, which starts April 6, is how well Woods can play. He remains the biggest draw, especially now because no one knows when they will see him next. Woods can hit all the shots. His problem is walking to the next one, over four days, on one of the toughest walks in golf.
Still hobbled by his February 2021 car crash that mangled his right leg, Woods managed to make the cut last year in the Masters and the PGA Championship (he withdrew after three rounds). He made the cut at Riviera and shot 67 on Saturday in his lone start in 2023. But it took a toll, and he has sat out for seven weeks to be ready for Augusta.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he got us on the edge of our seat for the first couple of days,” said two-time US Open champion Curtis Strange, now an ESPN analyst. “But can he sustain it? I think that LA just made me look forward more to the Masters, because he’s still got something in that body.”
McIlroy seems to have been wearing two hats over the last year. He got back to No. 1 in the world last fall while speaking out against the Saudi rival league and leading the change to a remodeled PGA Tour structure of big purses and small fields to reward the best players.
He has been at the forefront of acrimony, too, taking digs at Norman on more than one occasion and then refusing to acknowledge Patrick Reed when they were on the practice range in Dubai in January.
Perhaps it’s enough to ease the pressure of winning the major that has eluded him. Only two players—Sergio Garcia (19) and Mark O’Meara (15)—have played 15 times or more before winning the Masters. This is McIlroy’s 15th appearance.
“I don’t think anything is in real need of tons of practice,” said McIlroy, whose final event was third place in the Match Play. “I think my game’s in really good shape. So just keep it ticking over and work on the shots that I need for Augusta National, and away we go.”
Image credits: AP