AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The last time Tiger Woods was at Augusta National Golf Club, he was surrounded by more humans than likely had ever surrounded him in his entire mega-famous life. The 18th fairway was lined like the Red Sea parting for the 43-year-old wearing a red mock golf shirt as he took home his 15th major and fifth green jacket. If people were walls, these would have been impenetrable. Too deep to count, too delirious to care.
On Wednesday at Augusta National Golf Club, it's likely that Tiger Woods has never been surrounded by fewer people, at least not in that particular environment. Woods -- the 1997, 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2019 champion -- teed off at 10:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday with 1992 champion Fred Couples and 2013 champion Adam Scott. Nineteen people watched them hit their tee shots on the first hole.
Being at the Masters on the afternoon of April 14 was one of the all-time great spectating experiences for a million reasons. But it was also so dream-like, so otherworldly that it was almost difficult to properly comprehend. Part of me wonders if it would have been easier to contextualize through a television screen.
That Sunday was great, and I'm certainly grateful to have been there. There are moments throughout that day -- the way he putted before his round, the way he looked on No. 12, the ace he almost made on No. 16 -- that I will remember for as long as I'm covering this silly sport. But this Wednesday, with three of the 52 men who have ever worn the green jacket popping around Augusta National with little fanfare while trying to run their metal detectors over a nugget or two the day before the 84th Masters, well, how few people have gotten to experience that?
I had an appointment at 11 a.m. that I needed to attend and did not have my phone (obviously). I bailed on the appointment harder than Phil Mickelson at the 2014 Ryder Cup presser. How few folks, I thought, have ever had a front-row seat to maybe the best player of all-time playing maybe the best course in the world?
I was not disappointed.
Couples assumed the role of ringmaster. He was loud and funny, and it played well to the ever-revolving group of 20-25 people walking the first nine with these three. Adam Scott pounded drivers. A lot of them. He'd miss right and then left, and Couples would tell him to hit another one until he finally found the middle.
Woods was quiet but as engaging and dynamic as I've ever seen him. He also poked and prodded a place he's conquered so many times and yet remains such a mystery to everyone who has ever played it. And damn, if that wasn't cooler to me than him winning his fifth green jacket last year.
On the second tee, in a little alcove that allows for fairly small groups of people, Couples hit a drive on the long par-5. Tiger smiled and said, "See Freddie, you carried the bunker there." The bunker is 320 yards away, and Couples had no chance of covering it. He said, quite earnestly, "No, I think that's short" and only realized the joke a second before Woods and Scott started cackling.
Tiger worked his way around the second green the way I imagine a great musician tries different paths with a song she's fine-tuning. He bumped chips with one wedge then stopped them on the edge of the hill descending to the Sunday pin with another. It wasn't a masterpiece, but I'm far more interested in documentaries than blockbusters anyway.
On the third tee, Couples addressed his audience. "You've all tested for COVID, right?!" We all nodded. Somebody -- maybe a caddie, maybe Tiger -- whispered something to him, and he turned around. "You've all tested negative for COVID, right?!" Tiger howled.
More of the same on the third green. Woods dropped balls in the center of the green and putted to all three corners -- working the lines, feeling the ground. I know this sounds like absolute silliness, but I was entranced. Maybe it would be silliness if it was anyone else, but anyone else has not won five times there and has not twisted the Rubik's cube in the correct direction more often.
It started raining on No. 4, which somehow only made it better. Woods hammered sand shots out of a bunker and commented on how heavy the sand felt. He was trying to get these spinny shots to stop underneath a back right pin in the form of a disc his caddie, Joe LaCava, had dropped on the ground. Trying to get the feel right. It was like watching Peyton Manning dissect film or Stephen Curry hit 3s in an open gym. It's not for everybody, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Couples walked to the fifth tee with his phone -- which he holds like he just saw a phone for the first time yesterday -- out and his camera on. He was narrating something about hitting driver-3-wood into the par-4. Tiger was enjoying himself, and all three were cursing their shots and the weather. There were six of us on that back tee at No. 5. Tiger's swing looked like water. He looked good.
There are no ropes up at Augusta National this week, only green spray paint to show you where you can and cannot walk. On most holes, the boundaries are quite liberal. It removes the zoo animal nature golf course ropes often convey and makes it feel like the stage has been dissolved and the actors are now performing within the audience. It felt experiential. Like one of those $20,000 excursions folks with too much disposable income purchase for a 15-minute session with Tiger. Only if that session was at Augusta National.
Couples, animated, showed Woods a video on his phone in the fifth fairway. I considered (albeit not for long!) what it could be. Turns out it was long drive champion Kyle Berkshire. This led to a lengthy discussion with Scott's caddie, John Limanti, who himself used to dabble in the long drive scene. Couples and Woods peppered him with questions about technique, his longest drives and what parts of his body incurred the most strain. It got pretty nerdy, which is normally when Tiger hits his stride.
The sun started to burn off the rain and a swirling sort of hazy mist rose just beyond the fifth green. It felt more surreal than the march to No. 15 last year; Tiger Woods, bantering about long drive techniques and rolling putts up and down peaks and gulleys of one of the scariest greens on the golf course before packing up his bag and heading to the sixth.
The threesome finished out its nine, chatting, comparing equipment and probably enjoying a solitude they are rarely afforded, especially on this week at this place. And while nobody wants a world without patrons at this tournament, for one unique week in this bizarre year, it was a subtle joy to behold.
On the eve of a November Masters, three champions -- and it seemed to matter that this group was champions only -- were out on their playground, fiddling with what's working (and what's not) and trying to remember what it feels like to stand alone on this property at the end of the week.
It felt like I was not supposed to be there, like I had accidentally stumbled into the excursion without paying for it.
It won't feel like that on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday because they will be in Tournament Mode, and that will be more of the same of what we get every single week. What we got last year but without all the noise.
But on Wednesday, with everyone settling in for the biggest event of the year, I got to peer behind a curtain where only the men who have been fitted for a jacket trade secrets and see what else they can unearth from a place where the well has no bottom. And it all happened right there out in the open.