Now both golf legends like Woods’s chances to win the 82nd Masters.
After hitting Thursday’s ceremonial tee shots to begin the year’s first major tournament at Augusta National, Player and Nicklaus both said a Woods victory this week would rank as one of the greatest comeback stories in sports history.
“I’ve been amazed at how well he has come back,” Nicklaus said. “He has had to accommodate his fusion and I think that his golf swing is considerably better than it ever was because of that. He would certainly be one of my two or three favorites to win.”
Woods, a 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 majors won by Nicklaus, has not won a major title in nearly 10 years, since the 2008 US Open, and hasn’t won the Masters since 2005.
Since then, Woods has undergone divorce after a cheating scandal, several leg and knee injuries and four back operations. He hasn’t won any title since 2013 but is contending and driving well after spinal fusion, a self-dubbed “walking miracle.”
“When he was duffing chips. I thought, ‘Man, this guy’s gone.’ I never thought he would get over that. He was swinging very poorly,” Player said.
“He has been through a lot of adversity and has handled it extremely well,” Player said. “I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him win this week. This is a golf course that’s made for him.”
South Africa’s Player said Woods would have 20 major wins had he not consulted with coaches on swing changes while he was dominating rivals and torching courses.
“Tiger Woods, it always frustrates me because we always want to see somebody break records and he was on the verge of breaking every single record,” Player said. “The reason he didn’t, because he changed his swing.
“The reason Tiger Woods never went on and won 20 majors is… he won the US Open by 15 shots and then he’s having a lesson. Those pros were probably marvelous teachers with amateurs, but could they break 85 on this course? Had they been in the arena to understand?
“I never really understood that because you couldn’t really get any better. He was phenomenal and had he not done that,
I really believe he would have won at least 20 majors.”
Nicklaus, 78, and Player, 82, hit the ceremonial tee shots for the second time since the 2016 death of fellow legend and former honorary starter Arnold Palmer.
“We all miss Arnold,” six-time Masters winner Nicklaus said. “Arnold has been part of our three amigos for a long time. We obviously miss him greatly. But it’s always a thrill to come out on the first tee.”
Three-time Masters champion Player, who won nine career majors, outdrove Nicklaus.
“I said to Jack, ‘Don’t worry, I outdrive you now, but you outdrove me for 50 damn years,'” Player said.
Player and Nicklaus both applauded Augusta National for launching a women’s amateur event next year, but Player noted with regret the club founded the 1933 did not admit its first woman member until 2012.
“It’s something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” Player said of a women’s event at Augusta National.
“I vividly remember when they were talking about women being members of the golf club. Tiger Woods and I really stood up for them and said that they should be admitted into the club, much to our detriment amongst a lot of the members.
“I’m a great believer in women’s rights. And now to see this ladies tournament take place is just fantastic.”
Player said Asian talent is on the rise, especially in China, and likely to contend for a Masters green jacket one day soon.
“They’ve got wonderful golfers coming along,” he said. “It’s on a massive rise.”
The number of television viewers tuning in to the US Masters this weekend is expected to almost double thanks to the Tiger Woods effect, according to Nielsen Entertainment.
Figures released by Nielsen show that the return to form of injury-plagued Woods after years in the wilderness has had a dramatic effect on the number of people tuning in to golf.
“Television viewers are taking notice when Woods is playing in 2018,” Nielsen said in a statement on Wednesday.
“For the four events this season that Woods has finished inside the top 25, broadcast network viewership is up 93% versus the same events last year, or about two million more viewers on average.”
A 14-times major champion, Woods, 41, tees off at Augusta on Thursday vying to pull-off a comeback that would rank as one of the greatest in sport.
Woods last won a major at the 2008 US Open and has missed the last two Masters because of a debilitating back injury.
Pain free at last after spinal fusion surgery last April, Woods has ignited expectations with one runner-up finish and a tie for fifth in five official PGA Tour starts this year — his best finishes since 2015.
“When Tiger plays, fans tune in, it’s as simple as that,” said Jon Stainer, of Nielsen Sports Americas.
“Ahead of the Masters, his return to fitness and form will see swaths of viewers around the world tune in and increase golf’s following dramatically this weekend.”
For golf fans around the world, all eyes will be on Augusta as the 82nd edition of The Masters begins on Thursday.
The competition is the first major of the year and previous editions have provided plenty of drama with some brilliant and memorable moments.
We look back the five of the Masters highlights from yesteryear…
1978: GARY PLAYER‘S FINAL NINE HOLES
What's new this month in the World of Gary Player? Celebrating the 40th anniversary of his 1978 Masters, highlighting success at a number of Gary Player Design courses, and more. Read more in this month's PLAYER e-News: https://t.co/gWHhTuydqH pic.twitter.com/WoTdNHrYhO— Black Knight Intl (@BlackKnightIntl) April 2, 2018
The South African was eight shots off the lead going into the final round but Player came out of nowhere to claim his third green jacket. That was largely thanks to birdies on seven of the final 10 holes. His final round of 64 is still tied for the lowest final round score in Masters history.
1986: JACK NICKLAUS‘ WIN AGED 46
The legend proved that age was no barrier when it comes to winning titles. He had already won five times at Augusta but his sixth will probably go down as his greatest. Not only did he become the oldest major winner at 46, but he also came from behind to beat beat Seve Ballesteros, Tom Kite and Greg Norman.
2005: TIGER WOODS’ CHIP SHOT
Fans were left in awe as the American produced a moment of brilliance with the club. Facing an impossible shot at the 16th hole, Woods took a risk, chipping the ball far to the left of the cup and letting the ball roll into the hole for a birdie. Fitting stuff from the world No1 as he triumphed for his fourth Augusta title.
2010: PHIL MICKELSON‘S TREE SHOT
Not short of confidence when it comes to taking risks, Mickelson took a major one on the par five 13th hole. With a two-shot lead, he hit his tee shot into the woods behind a pine tree, making his chances even more difficult. But with his 6-iron, delivered one of the greatest shots to win for the third time.
2017: SERGIO GARCIA‘s PLAY-OFF WIN
At the 74th time of asking, finally there was something to celebrate for Garcia. The Spaniard had to do it the hard way after seeing a three-shot lead turn into a two-shot deficit with seven holes to play. But, Garcia held his nerve to pip Justin Rose in a memorable play-off to cap a special victory.