For the majority of Tiger Woods’ competitive life, he was not interested in nostalgia.
If you asked him a question about the past — about any of his previous triumphs — he would almost always deflect and pivot to the future. He was too focused on chasing all that was still ahead of him. One day, perhaps, he would indulge the world in a game of Remember When. But for the longest time, reminiscing held no allure.
There has, however, been a subtle shift in recent years. The deeper Woods gets into his 40s, the more willing he is to ruminate on specific yesterdays. Augusta National brings out his sentimental side.
On Tuesday, Woods used the word “memories” seven times in a 30-minute press conference. He talked about playing in the Par 3 contest with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He referenced a practice round he’d played early in his career with Fred Couples and Ray Floyd, one where Floyd taught him how to chip with a 4-iron, and how to get to a back left pin on No. 2 when you had little green to work with.
“Well, you hit it right over at [the gallery], and right before it lands, you yell ‘fore,’ ” Woods said, recounting Floyd’s advice.
The room erupted in laughter. Woods broke into a grin. It was clear he was enjoying the stroll down memory lane. Several minutes later, he volunteered another story. During Monday’s practice round, he reached into his bag and pulled out a couple balata balls. He’d brought them with him from Florida with a purpose. He tossed them to Rory McIlroy, then told his friend to hit a few putts with them. He wanted McIlroy to know what it was like to putt Masters greens in the days of his youth, now half a lifetime ago.
“[Rory] said ‘Oh my god,” Woods said. “And I said, ‘Yes. Exactly.’ ”
Woods’ recent fondness for days gone by got me thinking about a question I’ve wanted to ask him for years: Had he ever, even in a practice round, tried to recreate the chip he made in 2005 on the 16th hole, a shot that — I would argue — is now the most famous shot in Masters history?
It’s a shot I think about more often than I should, a little piece of artistry and magic that I watch every spring in anticipation of the Masters. When Verne Lundquist asks, so memorably on the CBS broadcast, “In your life have you seen anything like that?” it still makes me smile every time, because my answer at age 45 is the same as it was at 27.
I have not, before or since, seen anything like that.
It is a gentle reminder that even though speed and strength are the engines that make great golf possible, it is imagination and creativity that give golf its soul. If you want to help someone fall in love with the game, you don’t show them a drive that flies 350 yards, you show them a moment when gravity and grass helped write a piece of history.
That chip turns 18 this year. If it was a living thing instead of a memory, it would now be an adult. It’s easy to forget the context, but Woods might not have won the 2005 Masters without it. It helped him hold off Chris DiMarco that Sunday to secure his 4th green jacket. Woods bogeyed the final two holes after that chip went in, a piece of the legend many forget. But he won in a playoff, his first major in more than two years. It was a victory that, for a long time, seemed like it would be his last at Augusta.
Had Woods ever, perhaps at the behest of his son, Charlie, or even at the urging of friends like McIlroy or Justin Thomas, stood in that same spot and tried to recreate the golf equivalent of the Sistine Chapel?
“No,” Woods admitted. He had never tried it.
I couldn’t resist the most obvious follow-up: Why?
“They have since redesigned that hole, that green,” Woods said. “So it’s not how it used to be over there.”
When I prodded him one last time, curious about what he remembered the most about that moment, he gave the quintessential answer of a perfectionist.
“I did not draw a bad lie on that tee shot to hit it that bad,” Woods said. “If you want to go back and see the chip went in, okay, that’s cool. But to hit an 8-iron that bad and that far off line, and I had a perfect lie, that’s not very good.”
When his press conference ended, I took a walk. There are so many places at Augusta where you can reconstruct a moment you witnessed on TV, but most must happen from afar. Only players and caddies are allowed inside the ropes, meaning you could never stand where Jack Nicklaus stood when he made a birdie on 17 green in 1986, or where Phil Mickelson lashed a 6-iron between two trees to reach the 13th green in two in 2010.
But you can stand right about where Woods stood in 2005 as he stared down that impossible chip. The gallery ropes are closer now than they were 18 years ago. I planted my feet near that piece of holy ground and watched a few groups pass through.
Woods is correct, of course. (He usually is on those matters.) The slope of 16 green isn’t as severe as it once was. It would be harder to ask gravity to do what it did 18 years ago if he found himself long and left this Easter Sunday.
A part of me would still love to see him try. I suspect he’d be pissed about the 8 iron that once again betrayed him, putting him in a spot where he needed to reconstruct a miracle. The rest of us would be riveted. Augusta has changed in subtle and dramatic fashion in the last 18 years, and so has Tiger Woods. But this is still a canvas where he can stare down the unlikely and see possibility.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.
Email him at email@example.com.