Nineteen months after completing one of the most amazing comeback tales in sports, Tiger Woods will defend his Masters title searching for top form in an unfamiliar Augusta National atmosphere.
Woods captured his 15th major title and the first since the 2008 US Open in April 2019 at Augusta National, completing a recovery from multiple back surgeries that left a normal life in doubt much less a golf career.
After knee surgery four months later, Woods made a comeback in Japan at the Zozo Championship and won his 82nd career US PGA title, matching the all-time win mark set by Sam Snead.
But Woods was struggling with back issues when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 season in March, pushing the Masters from April to November and imposing a five-month layoff on Woods between events.
"This entire year has been different for all of us," Woods said. "And my run-up to Augusta is unlike anything I've ever experienced. That's just the way it is."
Since his return, 44-year-old Woods has been a shadow of his former formidable self, sharing 37th at the PGA Championship in August for his best result in six starts and missing the cut at the US Open in September with back issues.
"That's just the nature of my back. I wish it could be good all the time," Woods said. "I have moments where it's not quite as elastic as I'd like it to be, but I am moving a lot better."
The five-time Masters champion has also been working on shots he needs to have any hope of contending in an autumn Masters with no spectators and unusual weather conditions.
"I've got a few weeks out imaging some of those shots already and I have been for quite a while, ever since the US Open," Woods said. "So hopefully I'll be ready."
Woods knows Augusta National intimately, where to land shots and how putts will break. But he can't make normal preparations for a Masters unlike any ever played before.
"It's not normally this time of year. It's not normally played this way. We're not in a Florida swing. This is all different. This whole year has been different for all of us," Woods said.
"I can't simulate the ramp-up that I normally have and I don't think anyone else can either. It will be different for all of us."
- Masters roars silenced -
Woods has played Augusta National in November before, so he has a clue about what to expect.
"The few times I've played in November, it has been the same -- it has been cold, ball doesn't go very far," Woods said.
"If you're able to get the north wind that time of year, it can be awfully difficult and long and very different than what we normally play in April.
"Maybe a little bit longer and a little bit more softer than we've probably experienced, but you just never know."
There will be no spectators to roar for great shots in a pandemic safety move, opening more areas for shots but bringing an eerie silence to the traditional electric atmosphere.
"It's going to be odd in that sense, but it's still the Masters," Woods said. "It's still the best players in the world... it's just we're not going to have the roars.
"Sometimes we've been on the putting green there before we tee off and you hear roars down there 12 and 13, they reverberate all the way up to the clubhouse -- and there's going to be nothing."
There's also a new set of formidable rivals, including US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau and his long-drive style that some fear will overwhelm the sport.
"They should have been worried a long time ago, but the genie's out of the bag now," Woods said. "It's about what do we do going forward and how soon can they do it.
"You're not going to stop the guys who are there right now... I don't see how they can roll everything back."
© Agence France-Presse