AUGUSTA, Ga. — A comeback unlike any other for Tiger Woods might start at the Masters.
Just more than 13 months since he damaged his right leg so badly he said doctors considered amputation, Woods arrived Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club and warmed up on a range where there were more photographers than players. Woods hit balls for about 20 minutes, then got in a cart and headed to the course, which was closed to everyone except players and caddies.
Already a star attraction, the hype over the five-time Masters champion is higher than ever after a violent single-car crash that looked as though it might end his career. Still to come is the decision on playing in the year's first major, which starts Thursday.
"I will be heading up to Augusta today to continue my preparation and practice," Woods wrote Sunday morning on Twitter. "It will be a game-time decision on whether I compete."
The Masters does not have a firm deadline to commit like regular tour events. It is an invitation tournament, and players typically notify the club only if they do not plan to play. Tee times are published Tuesday.
"Knowing Tiger the way I know him, if he wasn't totally like ... pretty much feel he has a chance to win, he wouldn't tee it up," said Mark O'Meara, the 1998 Masters and U.S. Open winner and an old friend of the 15-time major champion. "The thing about Tiger Woods is usually when everybody thinks he can't do something, that's when he does it."
If Woods decides to enter — he played 18 holes at Augusta National this past Tuesday — it would be his first full-fledged competition against the world's best players since Nov. 15, 2020, in the final round of a Masters that was moved to autumn because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, photographers and media waited at the far end of the viewing area on the range near the caddie house to see when he would arrive. Woods showed up on the other end, shaking hands with reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama.
Billy Horschel and Kevin Na were among those who came over to shake hands or hug him. Also on the range were Mackenzie Hughes, Sungjae Im and Jason Kokrak. The Sunday afternoon before the Masters is a quiet time at Augusta National most years — but not this one.
Woods was recovering from a fifth back surgery when, on Feb. 23, 2021, two days after he presented the trophy at the Genesis Invitational that he hosts at Riviera Country Club, he crashed his SUV over a median on a suburban coastal road in Los Angeles and the vehicle went down the side of a hill. Police estimated he was going at least 84 mph in a 45 mph zone.
Doctors said Woods shattered tibia and fibula bones in his right leg in multiple locations. Those were stabilized by a rod in the tibia, while a combination of screws and pins were used to stabilize additional injuries in the ankle and foot. Woods said he spent three months immobilized in a makeshift hospital bed set up in his Florida home. Only then he could start moving around on crutches, and eventually he was able to walk on his own.
Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open with a double stress fracture and torn knee ligaments in his left leg — doing so by forcing an 18-hole playoff, then forcing sudden death in that Monday round and winning on the next hole for his 14th major title — and then overcame that injury and subsequent surgery to return the following year.
On a record-setting run at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking since mid-2005, he fell out of that spot in late 2010 and eventually tumbled out of the top 50 before returning to No. 1 in 2013. After another break due to his third back surgery, he returned to competition in late 2017 and won the Tour Championship the following year. And in October 2019, he won the Zozo Championship in Japan for his most recent PGA Tour victory, with the 82nd of his career tying Sam Snead for the record.
Nothing, though, was more amazing than three years ago at Augusta National when he won the green jacket for the fifth time after a fourth back surgery that made him fear he might never walk again.
That he is even contemplating playing in this Masters is remarkable in its own right. If he can, questions are sure to shift to whether the 46-year-old Woods can win.
A week before Thanksgiving, he posted a three-second video hitting one shot with two words: Making progress. Two weeks later at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas, a holiday event Woods hosts, he was on the back end of the range hitting drivers.
The first big surprise came two weeks later when he played the PNC Challenge, a 36-hole scramble on a flat Florida course. Woods was allowed to ride in a cart, a point he made when there were gushing observations about the state of his game. He and his son finished second when John Daly and his son birdied the last hole.
"It's going to take a lot of work to get to where I feel I can complete against these guys and be at a high level," Woods said that day.
Addressing the condition of his right leg in February, Woods said it's "altered" and that "my right leg doesn't look like my left, put it that way."
The importance of the practice round last week was for Woods to make sure he could walk 18 holes on the undulating terrain of Augusta National and still be able to recover in the days that followed. That he was returning Sunday was a good sign.
Can he win again? That would be considered more improbable than his last Masters victory.
In his last competitive round at Augusta National, he made the highest score of his career — a 10 on the par-3 12th hole by hitting three balls in Rae's Creek — only to birdie five of the last six holes, including the last four in a row. Woods tied for 38th as Dustin Johnson cruised to victory in that November 2020 edition, then wasn't in the field last April when Matsuyama posted a one-stroke victory to become the first Masters winner from Japan.