Among the early images of Tiger Woods’ return to the Masters are of him on the practice range Monday, ear buds in, moving and grooving to some of his favorite hip-hop music.
“I wanted to just rock out,” said Woods. “It was nice. I have a play list (with) 300 songs. It’s not too often I hear the same one again.”
The scene was telling as Woods continues to amp up his preparation for the Masters, a tournament he has won four times. But there are still questions for Woods, who is playing his first tournament in two months after withdrawing from February’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with a back injury.
Is this a sign of a more relaxed Woods, one who is taking a less-intense approach in pursuit of his 15th major championship?
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“I’m just enjoying competing again,” Woods said Tuesday. “Whether I have blinders on or not, I don’t feel any different. I feel like I’m preparing to try to win the Masters.”
Still, there are signs that Woods might be loosening up, at least a little bit. During a practice round Monday, he fist-bumped and gave high-fives to spectators. He plans on playing in Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest for the first time since 2004, with his children Sam, 7, and Charlie, 6, serving as caddies (and supervised by girlfriend Lindsey Vonn).
“My two little ones will be out there with me,” said Woods. “It’s special. This tournament means so much to me in so many different ways. To have a chance to have my kids out there and to be able to share that with them, it’s special.”
Woods said his return to Augusta – he missed the Masters in 2014 while recovering from surgery on a pinched nerve – is a result of several weeks’ worth of hard work at golf and physical therapy.
“I worked my (butt) off,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to kind of describe it. I worked hard. It was sun up to sun down and whenever I had free time. If the kids were asleep, I’d still be doing it. When they were in school, I’d still be doing it.”
The even larger question, of course, is can Woods contend for his fifth Masters title and edge closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships?
Woods hasn’t won at Augusta since 2005, and his last major victory came at the 2008 U.S. Open.
“Tiger has taken enough time off to where he wants to be back and obviously he’s pretty good around this place,” said 2014 Masters champion Bubba Watson. “So he is excited.”
Said 2013 Masters winner Adam Scott: “I have no idea what he’s doing. But it’s a little bit of unknown with (him) because he hasn’t played for a few months. When you’re talking about a world-class player, you just don’t know. His level of comfort around this golf course must be extremely high. With Tiger anything’s possible.”
Injuries and age have changed how Woods, 39, plays. He acknowledges that he’s not as long off the tee as he once was and needs to make up for it elsewhere, mostly in a short game that has betrayed him recently.
“I’m feeling older, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Try chasing 6- and 7-year-olds all day, you start to feeling it. The good news is my soccer game has gotten a lot better.”
As Woods has worked to shore up his short game, he acknowledged that he can still get discouraged.
“There were a few times when there were a few clubs that flew – suddenly slipped out of my hand and traveled some pretty good distances,” said Woods. “There were some frustrating moments, but I had to stick with it.”
There were also times during practice when Sam and Charlie provided him with some valuable perspective.
“They’d pick flowers, play tag,” said Woods. “We had a lot of games. Yes, they were there.”
But some things don’t change, even with fatherhood and a worldview that evolves as he turns 40 later this year.
“Winning,” he said with a smile. “I like it.”