Tiger Woods makes his much-anticipated return to The Masters alongside Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood and Australian Marc Leishman on Thursday in the opening round of the 82nd Masters, according to tee times released Tuesday.
Augusta National Golf Club will send off the 14-time major winner, a four-time Masters champion who has missed the past two years battling back injuries, and his playing partners off the first tee at 10:42 (18:42 UAE).
Excitement has swirled around Woods this week after strong Masters tune-up efforts, including shares of second at the Valspar Championship and fifth at Bay Hill last month.
England’s Fleetwood defended his crown at Abu Dhabi this year while Leishman last won at the 2017 BMW Championship. Each seeks his first major title.
The Woods trio is scheduled to tee off at 13:27 (21:27 UAE) in Friday’s second round.
Defending champion Sergio Garcia of Spain is in the trio just behind the Woods group along with world number two Justin Thomas, who won his first major title in last year’s PGA Championship, and US Amateur champion Doc Redman.
A trio of major winners follows the traditional Masters-amateur champions pairing with two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson joined by Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Aussie Jason Day.
Three-time Masters winner and five-time major champion Mickelson tees off fourth-from-last at 13:27 (21:27 UAE) on Thursday alongside fellow Americans Rickie Fowler and Matt Kuchar.
McIlroy, trying to complete a career Grand Slam by winning his first green jacket, follows at 13:38 (21:38 UAE) alongside Spain’s third-ranked Jon Rahm and Aussie Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner.
Spieth, the 2015 Masters winner, goes off at 13:49 (21:49 UAE) alongside South African Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner, and Sweden’s Alex Noren.
And the final Thursday trio includes world number one Dustin Johnson, who missed last year’s Masters after falling down a staircase on the eve of the first round, plus England’s Rose and Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama tees off Thursday at 10:09 (18:09 UAE) with American Patton Kizzire and England’s Paul Casey.
England’s Ian Poulter, the last Masters qualifier after winning the PGA Houston Open on Sunday, tees off at 11:48 (19:48 UAE) on Thursday alongside American Patrick Cantlay and South Africa’s Trevor Immelman.
The first group off after honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player tee off at 08:15 (16:15 UAE) will be an all-American line-up of Austin Cook, Ted Potter Jr. and Wesley Bryan at 08:30 (16:30 UAE).
“It is a miracle,” the 42-year-old superstar said Tuesday, less than 12 months after spinal fusion surgery.
“I don’t know of anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That’s incredible.”
It certainly wasn’t what Woods was expecting when he opted for the fusion, after three prior procedures that failed to relieve debilitating nerve pain.
“I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that’s pretty much it. I’ll have a nice, comfortable and great life, but I’ll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed-wise, just there’s no way.”
But Woods has astonished in his latest return from injury – so much so that he’s among the favorites to win the first major championship of the season, which tees off on Thursday.
“Obviously, he knows how to win, he’s not scared when he’s in the situation of in contention on the weekends,” said world number eight Rickie Fowler, Woods’s neighbor in Jupiter, Florida, who has seen Woods progress from tentative putting and chipping at home late last year to contending this season on the US PGA Tour.
“He’s going to win at some point. I think that’s pretty clear to everyone with the way he’s played and continued to get better.”
Woods counts four Masters titles among his 14 majors. His litany of injuries and abortive comebacks have largely quashed expectations that he would surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record total of 18.
Woods admits that his efforts to return to competition the past two years while still battling back pain were “a big pipe dream”.
“My back was fried,” he said. “I was trying, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week. Nothing worked. My disk was gone.”
Woods’s April forays to Augusta National the past two years were bittersweet pre-tournament appearances only.
In 2016 he was saddened to see the declining health of Arnold Palmer and last year he was in such pain he could barely sit through the annual dinner shared by past winners.
“My nerve was on fire, it was going down my leg and it was just burning,” Woods recalled.
Now playing “pain-free,” Woods has gone from strength to strength since returning to action in the unofficial Hero World Challenge in December.
He posted a runner-up finish at the USPGA Tour’s Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The sight of Woods, clad in trademark red and black, contending for a title on Sunday, has electrified golf fans and recaptured the attention of those who know Woods more for the personal indiscretions that wrecked his marriage, sent sponsors fleeing and made him tabloid fodder back in 2009.
Woods made headlines for the wrong reasons again last May, eventually pleading guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs.
Now, he says, he feels better than he has in “seven or eight years”.
“I feel fantastic,” Woods said. It’s just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers.”
But the 42-year-old Woods knows adding to the Masters titles he won in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005 is no slam dunk.
The 82nd edition of the tournament sees not only a raft of 20-something players — including major winners Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas – in form but also 47-year-old Phil Mickelson leading a charge of proven champions.
“I have four rounds to play, so let’s just kind of slow down,” said Woods, a master at managing out-sized expectations.
He recalled the anticipation preceding the 2001 Masters, where a victory would make him the first golfer to hold all four major titles simultaneously.
“It’s the same thing,” he said. “I’ve got to play and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, I end up on top.”
Woods and Mickelson were joined by 1992 champion Fred Couples and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters as they teed off from the 10th shortly after 08:30 local time on Tuesday.
Mickelson, 47, who won for the first time since 2013 last month, is aiming to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest ever winner at Augusta National.
And Woods, who underwent spinal fusion surgery last April, is seeking a first major title – and 15th in total – since winning the US Open in 2008.
With both men due to hold their pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday afternoon, it was expected that they would only play the back nine.