Tiger Woods still the biggest star at Masters – despite being 111th in rankings

They call the 1st hole Tea Olive. From the tee, the green is out of sight around to the right, behind the line of pines and beyond two sprawling bunkers.

To one side, the clubhouse, hidden by the big oak where the journalists loiter, and the lawn, roped off, where the members and their guests take their ice tea. To the other, the rest of Augusta National, all falling away down the hill towards Rae’s Creek. The scene looks much the same as it did last year, and the year before, and every year running back as far as anyone alive can remember. But in truth it is a little different to how it was when Tiger Woods arrived here for the very first time back in 1995, 20 years ago to the week. As Woods says: “They keep changing this place, it seems like, every year, and it looks exactly the same, like it’s never been touched.”

When Woods takes to the tee this year, for the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated rounds in his career, he will be standing in a box that has slipped 20 yards back, looking at a distant bunker that has stretched 25 yards closer to the green. Changes inspired, in part, by the first shot Woods hit in competition here, which flew right over the sand, rolled on up towards the green, and left his playing partner, José María Olazábal, looking for a pair of binoculars “just to see where he hit the ball”. Woods was 19 then, still a freshman at Stanford. “When I first came out here, I mean, I think I averaged like 296, I think it was, and I was second to John Daly at the time. Now the carry number is 320,” Woods says. “The game has evolved so much since I’ve been out here and I think that’s the biggest difference.”

Many of the men Woods is playing with and against this week, were, as he says, “still in diapers” at the time. Rickie Fowler was six, Rory McIlroy was five, Jordan Spieth was one. They grew up watching his wins, in ’97, ’01, ’02 and ’05. “My first memory of the Masters, I think, what was it, the one Tiger won in ’97,” said Dustin Johnson, 30. “That was the one that I remember watching sitting at home.” It is a similar story for all of them.

Jason Day, 26, tuned in on a “little turn-knob TV” in Beaudesert, Australia. He had to twiddle the antennas to get reception. “Watching him, watching him win the way he did,” Day says, “I wanted to be like that. I wanted to out there and play like he did.”

Across the world, in Holywood, Northern Ireland, McIlroy was thinking the very same things. “He was a hero of mine growing up. I did have posters of him on my wall, I did idolise him.”

So did Spieth, who grew up in Dallas, Texas. “I was watching highlights of 2005. “I think that chip shot he hit on 16 against Chris DiMarco, that chip shot that he made is arguably the best shot that’s ever been hit in the game of golf,” Spieth says.

“I just remember watching that shot over and over again, and the magic that he brings to this tournament and to every major championship, it is a dream I think for everybody to be in contention and try and take Tiger down on the back nine of Augusta.”

Augusta National spans around 400 acres. You can spend an entire day walking around without seeing it all. But when Woods is here, you always know where he is. You can track him by the flow of the crowd, drawn towards him always, and thickest around wherever he is, and by the whispers and words you catch as you move among them. “Tiger is on the practice green”; “Tiger is on the driving range”; “Tiger is on the par three.” Once he’s out on the course, you just listen for the roars and gasps. The 111th best golfer in the world, according to the current rankings, is still the biggest star here by a distance.

A way down the Washington Road, outside the boundaries of the club, the touts and ticket sellers gather by a branch of Taco Bell. They have to stay that far away. Local law means they are not allowed within 2,700 feet of the course. You see the same ones in the same spots every year. Talk to them, and they will tell you that their business depends on whether Tiger is in town and how well he is playing. In 2013, Woods regained the world No1 ranking a fortnight before the tournament. “It was a record year,” says Jimmy D. In 2014, Woods didn’t turn up at all. He was injured. “Night and day,” Jimmy says. “That was our worst year ever. The demand nose-dived and we had a record low.”

On Tuesday, when Woods announced that he was going to play in the par‑three contest, Jimmy says that the news immediately led to a $150 spike in prices for the next day.

Call it the Tiger economy. In 2014, the TV viewing figures were the lowest for any edition of the Masters since the start of Woods’ career. In the US, the audience for the final round was down 28% on 2013, when Woods shot 70 on the Sunday to tie for fourth place. Across the whole weekend, the tournament recorded the smallest audience share since 1957.

At the age of 39, Woods finds himself playing on a course he shaped, against players he inspired, in front of crowds he built. All of them wondering the same thing. Can he win a fifth Masters, a 15th major? Can he even get himself in contention?

The odds were long at the start of the week but have been getting shorter ever since the second shot of his Monday practice round, when, after an awful drive, he hit a short iron from the fairway of the 9th to within five feet of the pin on the 1st.

Add to that his easy demeanour around the course, his straightforward self-assurance in his press conferences, and his travails in Phoenix, when he withdrew after shooting 82, seem a lot longer than two months ago.

Maybe it’s a confidence trick. Maybe it’s not. We will only know for sure when he walks back to that tee on Tea Olive this Thursday. But either way, Augusta is Tiger country, and everyone is watching.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Andy Bull at Augusta, for The Guardian on Wednesday 8th April 2015 22.10 Europe/London

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