time Masters champion is maybe the only person who hasn’t cottoned on to the fact he is playing exhibition golf

April 18, 2024

The sun rose at 6.58am on Sunday in Augusta, a full three hours after Tiger Woods. Across the city, people were asleep and sharing the very same sorts of dreams, about the view down through the pines along the first fairway, the shots over the water at Amen Corner, the long walk uphill to the 18th green, where the club chairman Fred Ridley and  would be waiting ready with that freshly pressed Green Jacket. Woods says he still has these thoughts himself, in the few hours’ rest he gets between warming-down for the evening and warming-up again in the morning. For him, it’s a sixth win, and a share of Jack Nicklaus’s record.

Only a handful of the people entertaining these thoughts had a chance of actually realising them. In the 29 years Woods has been playing here no one had come from further back than six shots off the lead on Sunday. Which meant you likely needed to be at least one-under already to have the slightest chance of overtaking the 
You had to scroll a lot further down the morning leaderboard than that to find Woods, way past Adam Schenk, on even par, and Akshay Bhatia on five over, and JT Poston, two shots further back again, and Eric Cole, 10 over, till you found him, right down next to Denny McCarthy, Tom Kim, and Wood’s playing partner for the day, Neal Shipley, a 23-year-old college student from Pittsburgh who qualified by finishing as runner-up in the US Amateur at Cherry Hills last year. “We got here this morning and saw Tiger on the range, and it was like: ‘Oh, my gosh, this is actually happening’,” Shipley said later.

It really is. And more. Shipley beat Woods inside-out. He scored 73 to Woods’s 77. Woods was left 16 over, flat last, and four shots back from the amateur. Every year here he’s asked whether he really believes he can win the tournament and, every year, the answer is the same. “If everything comes together, I think I can get one more,” he said this week. “I haven’t got to that point where I think I can’t.”

And when Michael Jordan turned 50, he was still studying Lebron James’s game on TV and thinking about exactly how he was going to shut him down when they went head-to-head.

Since Woods’s car crash in February 2021, he has played 10 competitive rounds at Augusta, and broken par once. That was when he first returned and he made 71 in the opening round in 2022. Since then, his record here is 74, 78, 78, 74, 73, withdrew, withdrew, 73, 72, 82 and 77, with an average weekend score of 78.75. Truth is that after five microdiscectomies on his back, multiple knee surgeries, and a subtalar fusion in his ankle, his body won’t carry him through four days of competitive tournament play, not up and down Augusta National’s fairways.

The amateur Neal Shipley and Tiger Woods shake hands on the 18th green after finishing their round. Photograph: Andrew Redington/Getty
Woods played 23 holes on Friday, then went out again 20 hours later and made 82, with eight bogeys, and two doubles. It was the worst round he has ever had at a major, and on the course he knows better than any, where his knowledge of how putts break and which risks to take gives him an edge over everyone else. On Sunday, he watched Kim shoot 66, and said later it was exactly the sort of score he was hoping for himself. “I thought I had it in my system.” Instead he made three bogeys and a triple on the 5th, where he ended up hitting three drives after he sliced the first of them deep into the trees.

The gallery still cheered for him, but it was a warmer, softer sort of Sunday roar, cut with thanks for everything he has achieved over the years. He may be the only person here who hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that he’s essentially playing exhibition golf. Everyone else is happy just to catch a glimpse of him swinging a club, even when he uses it to hit a chip that rolls back down past his feet like he did by the 4th green. And on the occasions he catches one cleanly, like he did with his 360-yard drive at the 2nd, people enjoy just a little of the old thrill and the flickering thought “maybe, just maybe…” But no.

There are compensations, though. Even Woods seemed to enjoy bits and pieces of his round. He brought his son, Charlie, along to the practice range. He is 15, and was offering his dad some swing tip