When Tiger Woods played a practice round at Augusta National in the company of son Charlie (12) and top player friend Justin Thomas at the end of March, it did not go unnoticed. In fact, fans got wind of it the moment Woods’ private jet took off in Orlando. The flight path to Augusta National Airport could then be detected very quickly on flight tracking websites. After that discovery, all social media platforms in the United States exploded.
More than a month earlier, 46-year-old Woods had expressed his doubts aloud whether he could physically handle The Masters a year after his serious car accident. But that one practice round fueled the hopes of millions of golf fans. And Woods’ desire.
His name can now be found on the tournament website under the heading ‘in the field’ and not in the list of ‘champions who do not play’.
Woods himself remained silent for a long time. Until last Sunday he announced via Twitter that he would play a second practice round that day and only make the decision at the last minute. On Monday, with thousands of spectators in his wake, he played another round. In theory, Woods can wait until the night before The Masters – the tournament starts on Thursday – to make a decision. But on Tuesday he made it clear during a press conference that he wants to participate: “The way I feel now, I will play.”
There is no doubt that he considers himself likely to win when he participates. Because Woods only plays if he sees himself as a chance to win. That’s how it was when he turned pro in 1996 and that’s how it is today. “I’m not in to participate. I’m not like that. I have to have the feeling and the confidence that I can beat anyone,” Woods said recently.
I’m not joining for the sake of participating. I want to be able to beat everyone
Tiger Woods golfer
Discussion about Saudi Arabia
Tiger Woods’ presence at Augusta National will also divert attention from Phil Mickelson’s absence. The 51-year-old American is missing the first major of the year for the first time since 1994 – four are played annually.
‘Lefty’ has taken a break. The question is whether it came about entirely on its own initiative. It is likely that the PGA Tour has suspended or threatened Mickelson with a suspension for going beyond his means.
Mickelson backtracked by showing support for the Saudi Golf League, a wealthy oil sheikh-funded initiative for a new tour that is seen as a threat to the US PGA Tour. The Australian former top golfer Greg Norman is used by the Saudis as an advanced pawn, who has to win souls. That seemed to have worked for Mickelson, although it is still unclear whether he will participate in the Saudi Golf League.
Many top players, fronted by Northern Irelander Rory McIlroy, have spoken out strongly against the Saudi Golf League, a year after a stir over a similar initiative called Premier League Golf. That idea never got off the ground. Tiger Woods also stated that he had been approached for the Saudi tour. He didn’t listen to it.
The appeal of the Saudi Golf League is money. No more and no less. For example, according to various American golf media, Bryson DeChambeau would have been offered $135 million to participate in this circuit, an astronomical amount. The American player also denied that he had been offered the amount. At each tournament on the ‘Saudi Tour’ – the first is scheduled for early June in London – the winner will take home a minimum of four million dollars (3.65 million euros). Much more than this week is likely to bring in the title at Augusta National – last year the prize money was two million dollars (1.82 million euros). How much it is this year will be known later – presumably the same amount.
Also read: a book review on Tiger Woods’ biography, from 2018. A legend, but disfigured as a person
Loyal to the PGA
DeChambeau, as well as former world number one Dustin Johnson, announced his loyalty to the PGA Tour in late February. Their statement came days after Mickelson cornered himself in an interview in which he portrayed the Saudis as “murderers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and human rights abusers who execute gay people.”
In another interview, Mickelson spoke about his reasons for embracing the Saudi Golf League: out of dissatisfaction with the actions and policies of the PGA Tour. In his view, that organization would hoard too much money and pay too little to the players.
The latest statements went down badly with the PGA Tour, fellow golfers and a number of sponsors, who shrugged off his hands. Mickelson apologized for his statements a few days later and announced his hiatus. Famous players such as Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Adam Scott have all hinted that they are also interested in the Saudi Arabia-paid series of matches, but they are now keeping quiet. The PGA threatens players with sanctions if they also want to play in the Saudi Golf League.
Not much later, Mickelson received six million dollars from the Player Impact Program (PIP) for his contribution to “positive attention for the PGA Tour in 2021”. PIP was conceived by the PGA Tour in 2020 to reward players for their commercial value. In total, the PGA Tour paid out $40 million to ten players, who had scored points in the media and via social media.
The biggest bonus (eight million) went to Tiger Woods, who did not play one official tournament in 2021 but is still by far the most popular and golf-related search term on Google. In December last year, Woods also participated with his son Charlie in a father-son tournament that generated a lot of media value.
Woods couldn’t resist taking a stab at Mickelson, who had previously tweeted that he had won the highest bonus, on social media.
The two are not friends. Never been, although there has been no major rivalry in recent years. Also because Woods got little time to play due to injuries.
Woods and Mickelson have now made way for a new generation, but no one dares write the two off completely. After all, Woods unexpectedly won The Masters in 2019 and Mickelson wrote another major in the PGA Championship last year.
Last year, the Masters in Hideki Matsuyama had a memorable winner: the first Asian to win the tournament. The most memorable image of that victory was not the cheering of the Japanese himself, but the reverent bow of his caddy Shota Hayafuji on hole 18 after he got hold of the flag and replaced the stick. The action was so unexpected that no photographer captured the moment. Only TV cameras recorded the closing act.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 6 April 2022
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 6, 2022