AUGUSTA, Ga. — Joey Gray had a problem. He had set up his green Masters-branded camp chair on the left side of the 18th tee to watch Cameron Smith, whom he believed would be the champion of the 2022 tournament. But about to hole out on No. 17 was the champion of the 2019 tournament … and the 2005 tournament … and the 2002 tournament … and the 2001 tournament … and the 1995 tournament.
“This is a predicament,” Gray said.
He and his friends had just discussed Smith’s one-shot victory at the Players Championship last month and the charge he was making up the course here on Thursday. They had agreed that his “Kentucky waterfall” of a mullet would look lovely descending down the back of a green jacket. They had decided that for his champions’ dinner, he would provide no food, just an open bar.
But as Smith approached the tee, Tiger Woods approached the adjacent green. Gray looked pained. “F— it,” he said. “I’d rather watch Tiger.” He darted 100 feet west — along with something like half the crowd.
Smith fired a 68 to end his day as the clubhouse leader. Anyone who wanted to could see almost every one of his shots. It was a great day to watch golf, as long as you wanted to watch someone other than Tiger Woods.
More than 14 months after a car crash nearly cost him his right leg, and more than 500 days since his last competitive round of golf, Woods limped around Augusta National Golf Club for five hours and still shot a 71. At times it seemed as if every person on the premises watched — or tried to watch — him do it.
You could follow Woods for 18 holes and be lucky to see him hit three of those 71 shots. He drew more fans at the putting green before his round than world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler did at No. 17. Woods’s gallery stood some two dozen deep at the sixth green. The roars at the first tee were so loud that Joaquin Niemann, playing alongside Woods, could not hear his caddie.
That left the rest of the course comparatively silent. Smith doesn’t blame the fans. He felt the same way. He and Bryson DeChambeau found themselves with a lot of dead time after their third scheduled partner, Paul Casey, withdrew with an injury, and Smith spent most of that dead time doing the same thing as the fans: looking at the guy behind him.
“I almost felt like a patron out there at some points today,” Smith said. “You can’t not watch him; he’s unreal.”
Scheffler, playing two groups behind Woods, shot a 69. He said he was not offended at how few fans seemed to care. “I definitely don’t need more attention than I have right now,” he said with a laugh. “Having Tiger back here, with what he does for the game of golf, is so special. We’re hoping we’re gonna see him back a lot more.”
For Austin Greaser, a 21-year-old junior at North Carolina and the runner-up at the 2021 U.S. Amateur, the best moment of the day came on a hole he bogeyed—because at the same time, Woods was making birdie.
“I’m playing golf on the same course as Tiger in the same tournament, and I’m hearing the roars,” he said. “I grew up watching him a little bit. I missed most of his prime; I’m a little too young. But honestly, that was probably the highlight. I mean, I had a lot of fun in my own game, but to be standing in the same spot as him this week and be able to compete against him is really, really frickin’ cool.”
The amateurs this week are learning a lesson already ingrained in their professional peers: “It’s better to play behind him than in front of him,” said James Piot, the U.S. Amateur champion and a 23-year-old senior at Michigan State, who played with 2021 Masters winner Hideki Matsyuama and 2017 PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas, one group behind Woods.
“Everyone is leaving when he goes through. You kind of notice it even playing with J.T., one of the greatest, and the defending champion, and still people are leaving because they want to get ahead and go watch Tiger Woods.” (He added that he credited his friends, who often throw things at him while he practices, for helping him tune out the chaos.)
J.J. Spaun, who is playing in his first Masters, went off in the first group. He got to No. 16 and saw a sea of mostly empty chairs — set up by fans who were planning ahead for when Woods would come through, 13 holes later.
And the place cleared out considerably after Woods finished. The last group of the day included Brooks Koepka, who has won four majors, and Rory McIlroy, who needs a win here for the career grand slam. By the time they came through No. 17, though, Gray and his friends were gone.
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