AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A balding, introspective Tiger Woods arrived at Augusta National on Tuesday and spoke about joy and gratitude. He wasn't a cartoon hero, or a cartoon villain, just a middle-aged man with a complicated life, who loves to spend time with his children and to lose himself in the quiet calm of a craft. When he spoke about opponents, he spoke mostly about time.
"Yeah," he said, "I don't know how many more I have in me."
Every time he plays the Masters, he said, the thought passes through his mind that it might be his last. Nothing comes easy as it did in his green and carefree days. He can even admit now that in the darkest bedridden days after his car wreck, he wondered if he would ever play again. Last year's performance, when he limped around the course all four rounds, grimacing but never quitting, was a new kind of victory for him, a moral one, the kind of thing that would have disgusted a younger Tiger. Now he knows, of course, that his younger self was foolish and wrong.
"I didn't win the tournament," he said, "but for me to be able to come back and play was a small victory in itself. I'm very lucky to have this leg; it's mine. Yes, it had been altered and there's some hardware in there, but it's still mine. It has been tough and will always be tough. The ability and endurance of what my leg will do going forward will never be the same."
When Woods spoke Tuesday in the press room, the moderator gave him a glowing introduction that included his wins, of course, but also acknowledgment of the courage even finishing last year's tournament took.
"What an extraordinary accomplishment," the man said.
"Thank you," Tiger said.
"And then it got cold."
His leg aches when the weather changes, like so many aging men experience. He is both Tiger Woods and not, if that makes sense. Rory McIlroy played with him on Monday and saw both the brilliance and its enemy, as Tiger hit a constellation of shots that his younger competitors would happily trade their vast fortune to have, while also moving slowly with his surgically rebuilt leg. Rory and Tiger are real friends, with many shared business interests and personal connections, but it's always clear that some part of Rory is still that kid who found his own path by sitting in front of a television and watching a golfer not just win but dominate the world. Tiger has all the shots, Rory said almost wistfully.
"You know, if he didn't have to walk up these hills ..." he said.
Tiger still loves "the seclusion of practicing," and the way he catches himself repeating old patterns from a long time ago, out on a putting green watching Charlie as Earl once watched him, life not a circle so much as a parabola. To describe it as rise and fall sounds too negative. It's more like a collection of seasons and as Charlie bucks against the limits of spring, Tiger can enjoy the lengthening shadows of late fall. He talks about these moments with such palpable joy.
"What I experienced with my dad, the late-night putting or practice sessions that we did at the Navy Golf Course, I'm doing with my son," he said.
The Augusta National course is full of memories for him. Shots he hit. Spots where he hugged his father, or where he saw his mother being escorted from hole to raucous hole by Phil Knight on a Sunday coronation walk, or where he embraced his son and daughter. He played with Jack here, and Arnie, and Raymond Floyd and Seve Ballesteros. The great short game wizard Seve gave him tips about how to get around the famously difficult greens. As he told the story, Tiger said even thinking about it gave him chills. Then he looked down at his arm.
Every time he plays this course, in practice or for real, he passes snapshots from his life. And he passes reminders that so much of that past is receding into the mist. The green at No. 16 where he hit his famous chip shot in 2005, which catapulted him to a fourth Masters title, has been redesigned. The spot where he stood, and where he clipped the ball into the air, has literally been wiped off the face of the earth.
"So much of my life has been at Augusta National," he said.
He returns this year, believing he can win, determined to try, self-aware enough to communicate with his eyes and body language that there's little to no shot. That's what he's been working on in private these past months. He struggles to sleep, and always has, and in preparation for this year's tournament he has been rummaging through his memories, playing the shots in his imagination, living in the past and the future at the same time in a way that is both mind bending and somehow authentic to a man in his unique position.
In the morning he takes those thoughts out to his home course and practices hitting sidehill lies and putting himself in the kind of positions that the fierce Augusta National course will put him in once Thursday arrives. In those moments he is young once more, a competitor focused on a task, all that Tiger jargon about major championships once again true. But he also feels the shadows. Not long ago in South Florida, he took a persimmon driver out on the course. Just to see, you know. He drew it back, a far different swing than the free looping destruction of 1997, but still made square contact on the face.
The ball rocketed off the antique club and came to a stop 290 yards away.