Tiger Woods teed off after 2 p.m. on Sunday, an old habit that is ingrained after 17 years on the big stage at Augusta National Golf Club.
His playing partner for 15 holes this time believes Woods looks ready to be teeing off late in the afternoon again in a week.
“It’s good to see him back,” Steve Stricker said. “And he’s so happy. He’s joking around and having a good time and he feels good about things, I can tell. He must have a lot of things in order.”
What Woods has done in the past year is restore order to the golf world, winning six times in his past 20 starts to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in the world.
“The biggest and the best story line so far this year is the re-emergence of Tiger – of dominance and I think intimidation,” said Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S. Open winner. “That’s it.”
An ad campaign that Nike launched when Woods jumped to No. 1 again after winning at Bay Hill two weeks ago ruffled a few sensitive feathers.
“Winning takes care of everything” was the oft-repeated Tiger phrase that Nike turned into a slogan.
Some contend that the Woods camp was glossing over the recent controversies in his private life. In truth, those things had already dissolved away long before Woods’ game recovered.
Anyone who’s been to a golf tournament and seen the fawning reaction of fans to Woods knows that.
Or just check out the elevated ratings when he contends.
Nothing has changed on that end.
Woods remains golf’s most singularly valuable commodity, and the best thing that can happen for the game is for him to win another major and rekindle the conversation about stalking golf’s most celebrated record of 18 major victories by Jack Nicklaus.
“I like to say I hope he gets to 17,” Strange said of Woods’ quest. “I hope he gets to 17, because golf is going to be on the front page of every newspaper in the world when he goes for that 18.”
For all the conversation that golf was boring when Woods was dominating majors and all the hopes that he’ll find a rival to push him off his pedestal, he alone is all that matters. Whether Woods beats Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson or Bubba Watson next Sunday or any other major Sunday doesn’t really matter so long as he wins.
“When Tiger’s playing well, it’s good for our game,” said Stricker, who concedes that Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy are golf’s only true needle-movers right now.
There are dozens of great stories that might unfold this week on an Augusta course described by players Sunday as as lush as it’s ever been. Dozens of them would make great and worthy champions. Dozens of them are worth rooting for.
The story that can lift the game of golf the most, however, is Woods ending his major drought and donning a fifth green jacket.
And he seems poised to do it. The Tiger “aura” that so many players were claiming was gone is back. Players look at the leaderboard again to see where he is and adjust their games accordingly.
“When you’re standing on the first tee with Tiger Woods Sunday this year at the Masters, you know damned well you have to play one of your best rounds ever to win this tournament today because he’s going to play well,” Strange said. “And that in itself is intimidating.”
Woods’ demeanor was anything but intimidating Sunday. He started his practice round with a hug from August National member Condoleezza Rice. When the day was over, he didn’t stop to do interviews as he walked under the oak tree and into the clubhouse, but he laughed and joked casually with friends and media members.
He had the look of casual confidence that bodes well for what could be the most important week of his “comeback.”
For golf’s sake, Woods’ winning again could take care of everything.