The hike at the Augusta National Golf Club is equivalent to walking 40 flights of stairs in both directions, according to a Golf magazine study. TV doesn’t do justice to the elevation changes at the 7,545-yard course in Augusta, Georgia. It’s a 175-foot drop from the highest point on the course at the first hole green to the lowest point at Rae’s Creek in front of the 12th green. That’s about the equivalent of the overall height of Niagara Falls.
When Tiger Woods first won the Masters at Augusta National in 1997 as a 21-year-old, he could easily handle the course’s hilly terrain. That was before the multiple back and knee surgeries, the stress fractures in his tibia and the car crash in 2021 that almost killed him. Since late last year, the 15-time major champion has complained of plantar fasciitis, which has made it difficult for him to walk.
On Sunday after making his 23rd consecutive cut at the Masters, tying a record with Gary Player and Fred Couples, Woods succumbed to the demands of Augusta National on his feet and withdrew from the tournament. Had he continued he would have had to play 30 holes on Sunday — 12 to complete his third round and 18 for the final round.
“He’s pretty banged up,” said his caddie, Joe LaCava, to the Washington Post. “If it wasn’t Augusta he probably wouldn’t be playing. He still has the power, the swing speed, the shots and the length to contend. The injury is devastating, but if he could take a cart he could contend tomorrow.”
But Woods can’t take a cart until he turns 50 in three years and joins the PGA Tour Champions. He’s already looking ahead to that time when he can rest his feet.
“I can hit a lot of shots but the difficulty for me is going to be the walking going forward,” he said April 4 at his news conference. “It is what it is. I wish it could be easier. I’ve got three more years, where I get the little buggy and be out there [on the PGA Tour Champions] with Fred Couples but until then no buggy.”
Knowing when to retire is not the easiest decision for a professional athlete. For most, the body generally wears out before their will to play. Golf is not a team sport where you can take off some plays in the middle of the game. All you can do to save your body in competition is to play a limited schedule, which Woods has done for years.
At the Masters, Woods isn’t ready to join Jack Nicklaus, Player and Tom Watson as honorary starters. These past Masters champions played in the tournament well into their 60s. Player competed in his last Masters in 2009 at 73 years old. Woods won’t play that long. Before his comeback last year at the Masters following the car accident, he wasn’t sure if he would play in the tournament again. On April 4, he was full of gratitude.
“I don’t know how many more I have in me,” he said. “So just to be able to appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories.”
Most of us who love this game, who are old enough, know where we were when Woods won that 1997 Masters in epic fashion by a record 12 shots. It was the beginning of one of the most exciting periods in sports, when he ushered in the 21st century with victories that were dramatic and exciting and uplifting for all people, especially African Americans.
Harold Varner III is one of those African Americans inspired by Woods. A 32-year-old player on the new LIV Tour, Varner was just one of three African Americans in the 2023 Masters field, along with Woods and Cameron Champ. Varner has used his wealth from his multimillion-dollar deal with LIV to invest in junior golf and programs that impact Black golfers. His charitable foundation is partnering with the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association to be a part of its annual men’s college golf conference championship. In his own way, Varner is trying to support the development of images like himself that he saw in Woods and Charlie Sifford, the pro golfer who was the first African American to play on the PGA Tour.
“Tiger’s done so much for the game,” Varner said. “He’s done a lot for me personally. We want to see him play and play as often as possible.”
As much as we may all want to see him play, it could be time for Woods to sit down and fully transition into his off-course pursuits, including a golf architecture business and a new venture with Rory McIlroy, TMRW Sports, the owners of a part-virtual golf league that has the backing of singer Justin Timberlake, tennis great Serena Williams, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and many other celebrities.
Woods’ difficulty walking Augusta National during the Masters, and his stubborn will to do so despite intense pain, is in many ways symbolic of the peaks and valleys that he’s had in his life, as well as the importance of the tournament to this journey. He’s won the green jacket five times and reached the summit of the game, but he’s still going over the same terrain in search of more gold.
On Saturday evening as he limped badly to what was a merciful end to his day granted by Mother Nature in the form of rain, all I could think about was that skinny 21-year-old kid in the red Nike sweater gliding up the fairway in the late afternoon at the 1997 Masters with a smile on his face and a long way to go before he reached his final destination.