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Augusta National will be epicenter of Tigermania for this year’s Masters

Tiger Woods tees off on the 16th hole

Tiger Woods tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament Thursday in Orlando. Credit: AP / Phelan M. Ebenhack

Considering that Tiger Woods said his back was so bad last year that he often needed someone’s help just to get out of bed, and given that he reportedly told his fellow Masters champions last April that he was finished, a victory at Augusta this week would add an epic new chapter to his legacy. Then again, the legacy itself could be his greatest roadblock.

He inspired and/or motivated today’s top pros, many of whom are entering the season’s first major Thursday at full steam. Woods will command the overwhelming share of attention at Augusta National because of his surprisingly strong comeback from his latest back surgery, combined with his drawing power. Winning the green jacket will be more of a challenge. He has his own legacy to blame.

To illustrate just how much Woods means to the ascendant young pros, think of what Justin Thomas, 24, remembers most about having won his first major, the 2017 PGA Championship. A day later, he was invited to dinner with Woods. “It’s crazy. I probably got just as much joy out of that as I did in winning, which is just bizarre to say,” Thomas said last August during the Northern Trust at Glen Oaks Club, on his way to winning the $10-million FedEx Cup as the PGA Tour’s overall season champion. The point is, he could not believe that Woods would take such an interest in him.

Rory McIlroy, 28, who never has made it a secret that Woods was his role model, was amazed last month when he witnessed first-hand the intensity of Tigermania crowds. McIlroy suggested that the commotion probably costs Woods one stroke a round.

The 28-year-old from Northern Ireland defeated his 42-year-old hero down the stretch at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That placed McIlroy among the favorites this week and put him in position to join Woods in the short list of players who have won each of the four modern majors.

Phil Mickelson, 47, jokingly predicted, after having broken through for his first win in five years (beating Thomas in a playoff last month in Mexico), that Woods would upstage him by winning the next week. His old rival actually did overshadow Mickelson’s victory simply by contending at the Valspar Championship. Still, Mickelson, who always has said that Woods’ presence made him work harder to become a better golfer, does have the momentum of a victory as he tries to tie Woods with a fourth green jacket.

Jason Day, who often leans on Woods for advice, arrives at Augusta with a 2018 victory under his belt. So does Dustin Johnson, the World No. 1 and devotee of Woods’ emphasis on physical training. Bubba Watson, a friend of Woods through international team competitions, has won twice this season and is a strong contender for a third green jacket. Then there is Sergio Garcia, Woods’ longtime jousting partner, who comes in with a fresh outlook as a new father and defending champion.

So, the competition will be both a tribute and a challenge to Woods. The interest level, with expected spike in television ratings, social media traffic and legal gambling activity, testifies to the fact Woods still generates strong feelings, with his triumphs, his failings and his comebacks.

Jim Nantz of CBS, who will call the tournament for at 33rd consecutive year, said on a conference call, “I think this is probably the most anticipated Masters that any of us has seen in our lifetime.”

His partner Nick Faldo, the three-time Masters winner, said that Woods told his fellow champions at their annual pre-tournament dinner last year that he was finished with competitive golf because his back was so bad. Since then, Woods was arrested for driving under the influence after having taken numerous pain medications but also underwent successful fusion surgery that allowed him to play again.

“Coming back from this, I think, will be his greatest achievement,” Faldo said of the 14-time major winner.

Woods has acknowledged that his range of motion is limited, so he has revamped his swing while reviving his trademark short game and steely focus. “It’s like riding a bike,” Woods said in an ESPN interview, “but it’s a new bike.”

The old electricity will be back at Augusta this week. It will be a new experience for Thomas’ generation. “For most of these guys, Tiger was their idol. He’s one of the very reasons they all wanted to be golfers,” Paul Casey, 40, said a day before he won the Valspar Championship. “I hope they get to see him the way I got to see him.”

RORY GOES FOR THE SLAM

When Rory McIlroy surged down the stretch and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational recently, proving he had regained his touch, he instantly joined the crowded ranks of favorites to win the Masters. A victory at Augusta this week would allow him to join golf’s most elite fraternity: those who have won all four tournaments in the modern Grand Slam.

He is one of three golfers to have that opportunity this season. Phil Mickelson will have his shot in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Jordan Spieth will have the opportunity in the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis.

Here is the exclusive club, and the event in which each completed the Slam:

PLAYERCLINCHER

Gene Sarazen1935 Masters

Ben Hogan1953 British Open

Gary Player1965 U.S. Open

Jack Nicklaus1966 British Open

Tiger Woods2000 British Open

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