Gary Woodland warms up on the practice range during a...

Gary Woodland warms up on the practice range during a practice round in preparation for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Augusta, Ga. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gary Woodland is back at Augusta National this week, feeling perhaps more grateful to be at the Masters than anyone.

A mere seven months ago, the former U.S. Open champion was undergoing brain surgery after a tumor was discovered. The 39-year-old from Kansas had been experiencing symptoms for months, yet he continued to play through the summer, even as the symptoms and subsequent medications left him wracked with anxiety and paranoia.

In August, doctors drilled a baseball-sized hole in the side of Woodland's skull. They removed as much of the tumor possible, though they couldn't get it all, but deemed the procedure a success. The tumor was found to be benign.

Woodland returned at the Sony Open in January. And even though he has missed five of eight cuts, he believes he is finding his form. Woodland shot three rounds in the 60s and tied for 21st a couple of weeks ago at the Houston Open.

“The reception has been amazing,” he said. “For so long I wasn’t saying anything, and so nobody knew. That was the hard part, putting on a smile and acting like everything is OK. It shows that people care. We’re a big family out here, at the end of the day. We’re all out here trying to win, but we’re all here to support each other as well, and I’ve definitely felt that.”

He certainly felt it during the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday. Woodland elicited a roar when he aced the sixth hole.

SHARK SIGHTING

Scottie Scheffler hits from the bunker on the 12th hole...

Scottie Scheffler hits from the bunker on the 12th hole during a practice round in preparation for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Augusta, GA. Credit: AP/Ashley Landis

Among the more notable faces in the crowd Wednesday at the Masters was none other than Greg Norman.

The Washington Post spotted Norman, the CEO and commissioner of Saudi-funded LIV Golf, following his players along the first fairway during the final day of practice. The Post said he entered through the main gates with a ticket along with LIV executives.

“Walking around here today, there’s not one person who said to me, ‘Why did you do LIV?’” Norman told The Post. “There’s been hundreds of people, even security guys, stopping me, saying, ‘Hey, what you’re doing is fantastic.’ To me, that tells you that what we have and the platform fits within the ecosystem, and it’s good for the game of golf.”

Norman had not been to the Masters since he was a radio analyst for SiriusXM radio in 2021. Major champions typically get noncompeting invitations, but The Shark was not extended one last year because Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said he wanted the focus to be on the tournament.

Sam Burns hits his tee shot on the 14th hole...

Sam Burns hits his tee shot on the 14th hole during a practice round in preparation for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Augusta, GA. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

“I’m here because we have 13 players that won 10 Masters between them,” Norman said. “So I’m here just to support them, do the best I can to show them, ‘Hey, you know, the boss is here rooting for you.’”

OOO, BABY, BABY

Just about the only thing that seems like it could slow down Scottie Scheffler, the 2022 Masters champion and world No. 1, this week could be a call from home — provided the message finds him on a course where cellphones are verboten.

Scheffler's wife, Meredith, is due to give birth to the couple's first child later this month, and he said he would withdraw even if he was leading the tournament so that he could jet back to Dallas if she went into labor.

Sam Burns is in the same situation. His wife, Caroline, is due to give birth to their first child in a little under two weeks.

DISTANCE CONCERNS

Masters Chairman Fred Ridley repeated his support for the USGA and R&A pushing forward with a plan to change equipment standards aimed toward making the golf ball go shorter distances. And he used his own number Wednesday.

“I’ve said in the past that I hope we will not play the Masters at 8,000 yards,” Ridley said. “But that is likely to happen in the not-too-distant future under current standards.”

New testing standards are designed to make elite players hit up to 15 yards shorter, but they don't go into effect until 2028. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America are opposed to rolling back how far the golf ball can go, but Ridley was hopeful they adopt the standards to avoid “a great deal of stress in the game, which it doesn’t need right now.”

Ridley also said there was no plan to introduce a tournament for female professionals at Augusta National.

“We happily were able to find a way to have a competition for juniors and a competition for women amateurs sort of wrapped around the Masters Tournament, and it just seems to fit really well,” he said. “To have another tournament of any kind would be very difficult based on our season, based on the fact that this is essentially a winter and spring golf course. It’s not open in the summer. It doesn’t play the way we want it to play in the fall for a major tournament.”

CADDIE ON CALL

Tommy Fleetwood is playing this week without longtime caddie Ian Finnis, who remained home with an illness that he's been dealing with since December. The two have been together for nearly every tournament the past eight years.

Fleetwood played the Texas Open last week with Adrian Rietveld, who works for TaylorMade and helps Fleetwood and others with their equipment issues. But Fleetwood chose a more local option for his eighth appearance at the Masters.

“My caddie is Gray Moore. He's an Augusta caddie," Fleetwood said. “The first two or three years that I came here, I always had Gray in practice and would always sit and speak to him. So I’ve known him well for the last few years.”

Fleetwood isn't the only one with changes on the bag. Justin Thomas abruptly parted with Jim “Bones” Mackay last week and will have Matt Minister helping him. Tyrell Hatton is without Mick Donaghy, who fell before the final round of last week's LIV Golf event at Doral, and will be using friend and golf pro Hugo Dobson this week.

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