AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods arrived to work with a leg full of rods and plates and screws, carrying his pain around like a physical thing, talking a lot about endurance. That pain is his constant companion now. He said he plans on playing this year's Masters, with a belief he can win, and that when his golf career ends, it will because he says so. The hurting leg and back is the price he pays for that agency and control.
He just smiled when asked what each round took from him, as if that knowledge was something that couldn't be shared with words. He's famously guarded -- his two yachts are named Privacy and Solitude -- and is happiest when he's unseen. His daughter, Sam, joked recently in his World Golf Hall of Fame induction speech that he's been to Comic-Con events dressed as Batman. But now he can't hide anymore. Everyone knows what it's taken for him to simply be here.
"It's up to me to endure the pain," he said.
The final act of his career has begun, one that is revealing finally after all these years the truest version of himself. The crowds here at Augusta National the past two days know this. Walking the course, he's been greeted by galleries showering him with something subtly new. Adoration, he's known. Awe and excitement and fear, too. But this was love, and respect, and he felt both.
"It's hard to believe it's been 25 years since I [first] won here," he said.
Phenom Tiger felt like a creation of his father, Earl. The Tiger Slam victory robot felt like a creation of publicists and marketing gurus. His public downfall, the affairs and the arrest, felt authentic but a reflection of his worst impulses. The golfer who emerged from years of back surgeries to win the 2019 Masters felt like a reflection of his best. His fifth Masters victory was the end of a long journey for him, the first time his children had ever actually seen him be Tiger F---ing Woods, and it seemed like he had finally reached a kind of mental pasture.
Then, 14 months ago, he could have died in a rental car. The pain started anew. Surgeons put him back together and for three months he sat in a hospital bed in his house. He hinted at the dark moments on Tuesday in his annual pre-tournament media conference. Those moments lived in between clipped sentences, visible in his memory and your imagination, as he talked about wheelchairs and crutches. Anyone who has been to physical therapy can almost imagine the screams of those first steps, one becoming two until he could play a round of golf.
"I've worked hard," he said. "My team has been unbelievable. I've been lucky to have great surgeons and great PTs and physios that have worked on me virtually every day. We've worked hard to get to this point, to get to this opportunity to walk the grounds, test it out, and see if I can do this. It's been a tough, tough year and a lot of stuff that I had to deal with that I don't wish on anyone, but here we are, Masters week."
Last week he flew to Augusta to see if he could make it around the course. He brought his son, Charlie, to play with him. Tiger loved seeing the course through young eyes and smiled when his son misread the famously tricky greens.
"Just outside left?" Charlie asked while standing over one putt.
"More like 3 feet outside left," he replied.
The weather was perfect that day last week. The birds were singing in the trees. His son had grown, in size and skill, since they last played here. So he got to measure time that way, too, to feel how fast it is forever rushing away. A year ago, he didn't know if this was the kind of day he'd ever enjoy again. The next morning he felt good and suddenly all this felt possible. Now the tournament is almost here. If you've never been to Augusta National, it is an incredibly hilly golf course. On Tuesday, a reporter asked Tiger how those hills would impact his injured right leg.
"What are the more troublesome lies for you?" he was asked. "Are they uphill, downhill, or side hill?"
"All," he said, and the room laughed.
His body won't ever move much better than it's moving now. The pain will lessen, and he will continue to get stronger, but his future now lies in his hands and in his mind and in his ability to endure. He's been thinking a lot about Ben Hogan lately. In 1949, Hogan almost died when he wrecked his Cadillac while driving through the fog and ice between Dallas and El Paso. A Greyhound bus was passing a truck and hit Hogan's car head-on. It nearly killed him. He broke his left ankle, his collarbone, a rib, his pelvis in two places, along with lots of abrasions, contusions and internal injuries.
He stayed in a hospital bed for two months. A blood clot nearly killed him there. And Tiger knows that if he'd been hurt back in 1949, without his modern surgeons and therapists, there is no way he'd be back at Augusta. Doctors didn't think Hogan would walk again -- but he did. He won six more majors after his wreck and when people think of him now, they think of his toughness as much as the perfect swing and the easy triumphs of his pre-injury prime. That's Tiger's future, too. His peers aren't the guys playing this tournament but legends like Ben Hogan. Tiger looked happy and grateful on Tuesday, and confident, clear-eyed and uncharacteristically reflective.
"I don't know how many more years I can do this," he said.