AUGUSTA, Ga. — Joaquín Niemann couldn’t hear his younger brother.
He had made another Masters Tournament. He had sailed through the thicket of spectators. Now, as the 23-year-old Chilean stood on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday, Gary Matthews, carrying Niemann’s bag, might as well have been anywhere else.
Such is life alongside Tiger Woods.
Just weeks ago, Woods, whose doctors weighed the amputation of his leg after a car accident last year, seemed certain to miss the Masters. But his decision to take part in the tournament, his first professional competition since November 2020, instantly transformed the way spectators would follow the action – and any player accompanying the five-time Masters winner at Augusta National.
Woods’ presence in a couple or group has long defined the playing environment around his slice of almost every tournament, with his fans, and quite often just the curious, providing a barrage of cheers, comments, cameras, commotion and scrutiny. The spotlight, it seems, barely moves away from him, if at all.
So chaos, or whatever chaos matters on a golf course, can make Fred Couples — a Masters champion, once the best golfer in the world, and a baby boomer hero — look more like an afterthought than to a leading man. It can make Stewart Cink, British Open champion and one of the best golfers of his time, a simply thrilling bonus, or Francesco Molinari, also a British Open winner, something less than the marquee name of a couple.
“It’s very different when you play with Tiger anywhere, and Augusta National is no different,” said Cink, who often had a close view of Woods at the Masters.
Woods, who won the first of his Masters green jackets 25 years ago, has long commanded one of Augusta’s greatest galleries, with other champions certain only a ‘tiger roar’ through the pines just sounds different than cheering on other players. And with Phil Mickelson, one of Woods’ rivals for attention and affection, absent from this year’s Masters, Woods is even more the most watched player around Augusta this week.
The frenzy of this particularly intense week began long before Niemann, Woods and Louis Oosthuizen found themselves scrutinizing the No. 1 from 445 yards on Thursday. Couples, who played his 37th Masters this week, joined Woods for a pair of practice rounds and was left spellbound on Monday, the first day the course was open to spectators.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he marvels. Couples said he found a way to get to the tee where Woods fans “were only four deep.”
He added: “They wanted to see the big guy, and they saw him, and they saw good golf. He gets that here all the time.
But frequency doesn’t necessarily make the scenario easier for others pursuing their own ambitions.
“The most important thing is just the energy in the crowd and the intensity of the reactions and the race for position,” said Cink, whose best result in Augusta was a tie for third in 2008. “He there’s a lot of movement there.”
Cink said Woods regularly tried to keep the fight fair by allowing the others to finish playing a hole before him, keeping the crowd in place a bit longer.
“When you play with him it’s busy, it’s loud,” said Molinari, who won the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie when paired with Woods and, the following year, played with Woods on Sunday. in Augusta. “I don’t think it makes a big difference if it’s here or somewhere else.”
Woods, as powerful as he is, has only limited control.
On Thursday, spectators began gathering around the first tee long before Woods emerged from the clubhouse to start his tournament. A drone flew overhead. At least one man shouted “let’s go Tiger!” at least twice, though it was hard to tell in a crowd that seemed to be about 25 deep in places so people could see Woods (or maybe just the top of his cap) as he pulled his first attempt.
Niemann and Oosthuizen received polite and restrained greetings from the crowd, which began to separate as soon as Woods, who struck first, finished swinging his driver, to better get ahead of the fairway or on the second green, to see Bois again.
The din died down enough on later holes that Niemann said he could, in the end, hear Matthews as he played his way to a three-under 69. He said he even came to find pleasure in the huge crowds.
“They were always telling me to make sure you try to finish before Tiger, that way people don’t start moving,” Niemann said. “But they were really respectful, so it was a nice game.”
Daniel Berger suggested a fate worse than being paired with Woods was playing right in front of him.
“If you’re one or two ahead of him then it’s always tough with people trying to run to see him,” said Berger, who made his Masters debut in 2016.
Padraig Harrington, another British Open winner who played with Woods, had a similar assessment.
“It’s very difficult if you’re the group in front of him,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult because the crowds are watching him and moving to see him. When you play him 20 deep, you can’t hear anything because there’s so much going on.
But Harrington, who has won two Opens and a PGA Championship, had no complaints about living with Woods as a playing partner.
“He’s actually one of the easiest guys to play with over the years,” he said. “He’s a very straightforward guy to play with. He plays golf. He only says ‘good shot’ when you hit a good shot. There’s no messing around, no nonsense about it.
Practice rounds are, of course, less pressured, and Couples, who has long been close to Woods and is now in the twilight of his career, has reported that he sometimes plays court jester. That was apparent this week when Woods played with Couples, who won at Augusta in 1992, and Justin Thomas, who was born the following year and was 3 when Woods first won the Masters.
“I like to tell them stories, but usually on the tees it’s very quiet and I let them do their thing, and as soon as we come down the fairway there’s going to be a story about this or that guy or me or Tiger ,” The couple, who said Woods and Thomas hit it last, recalled this week. “Then we laugh until we get to a ball.”
Crowds are always dense, always watching and always bouncing. But Couples said there was a benefit to playing with Woods and Thomas, all the drama and distractions aside.
“It’s good because they only want to play nine holes,” Couples, 62, said. “I’m great with nine holes.”