AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – The Masters officially gets underway on Thursday at 8am ET (1200 GMT) when Jose Maria Olazabal hits the opening tee shot but for many golf fans the year’s first major will not truly begin until just over two hours later when Tiger Woods appears on the tee.
With COVID-19 restrictions lifted and Woods returning from a serious leg injury, fans are set to pour into Augusta National and most at some point will find their way to Woods who partners South African Louis Oosthuizen and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann.
Even during Monday’s first official practice, before the five-times champion had made a decision on whether to play, the galleries were back and so was the unmistakable Augusta National buzz amplified by the sight of Woods working the fairways.
That offered a taste of what is to come after Woods on Tuesday announced he not only planned to play but believes he could win a sixth Green Jacket just 14 months after doctors considered the possibility of having to amputate his right leg.
While Woods has written many impressive comebacks, the challenge facing the 46-year-old this week will be daunting and painful as he puts his battered right leg to the ultimate test.
By all accounts Woods’s game is in major shape but the bigger question will be how well he manages four potential rounds on the undulating Augusta National layout, which is one of the more demanding tracks on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t show up to an event unless I think I can win it,” said Woods, who has not competed on the PGA Tour since the November 2020 Masters.
“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.
“You know, 72 holes is a long road, and it’s going to be a tough challenge and a challenge that I’m up for.
“There is (pain) each and every day.”
While the spotlight has been locked on Woods, 91 other golfers will tee off on Thursday with the goal of claiming the coveted Green Jacket.
Following Woods’ threesome will be defending champion Hideki Matsuyama, who last year became the first Japanese man to win a major championship, Justin Thomas and amateur James Piot.
The next group off will feature world number one Scottie Scheffler, 2013 champion Adam Scott and Tony Finau, who has three top-10 finishes in four Masters appearances.
Betting favourite and world number two Jon Rahm will go out in the third-to-last group along with Will Zalatoris, who last year finished runner-up on his Masters debut, and PGA Tour Player of the Year Patrick Cantlay.
Spectators will not want to leave early with the final group highlighted by Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, who will once again attempt to complete the career Grand Slam of golf’s four majors with a Masters victory.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Augusta; Editing by Ken Ferris)