—Tiger Woods was at Augusta National briefly last week for the Champions Dinner two nights before the start of the Masters. Even though he wasn’t playing as he continues his recovery from back surgery, he managed to make some news.
It came the day after when he went home to Jupiter, Fla.
“Tiger Woods was hitting drivers full speed today at Medalist GC,” Tim Rosaforte of the Golf Channel reported on Twitter.
Woods, who has not played since the Wyndham Championship last August, is taking his comeback slowly at the age of 40 and insists he will return to action sometime this year.
It wasn’t until a week before the Masters that he announced that he would not play in the first major of the year, which he has won four times, but he also seemed encouraged by his improvement.
“I’m absolutely making progress, and I’m really happy with how far I’ve come, but I still have no timetable to return to competitive golf,” Woods wrote on his website.
Nicklaus said again that he believes Woods can do it.
“Tiger and I both won young, and he may span 25 years (in his career) himself,” Nicklaus said at the Masters. I don’t think he’s done. I think Tiger’s going to win more tournaments.”
Woods’ next target could be to play before or at the U.S. Open in June at Oakmont.
–Golf is being played in the Olympic Games this summer for the first time since 1904 in St. Louis, and the individual gold medalists will earn added prizes.
The winners in Rio de Janeiro will receive exemptions into all the major championships.
The men’s winner will be assured of a spot in the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship in 2017.
The winner on the women’s side will automatically qualify for the final major of 2016, the Evian Championship in September, and the first four majors next year — the ANA Inspiration, Women’s PGA Championship, U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s British Open.
“Whether it’s someone that is in the top rankings in the world or someone who is a Cinderella story, in both ways it’s a positive,” said Pete Bevacqua, chief executive officer of the PGA of America.
While the winner might already be qualified for the major championships, there is the chance that a lower-ranked golfer might play his or her way into the majors.
Some players have expressed skepticism that the Olympics will carry as much importance as the majors, although others such as Jason Day of Australia and Jordan Spieth are fully on board.
“There is nothing, nothing, more powerful than representing your country,” said Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and head of the 1996 Olympic Organizing Committee in Atlanta.
“I suspect that you will see that take over and totally capture the enthusiasm of the players for golf. … We believe our game’s visibility will be dramatically elevated by the global platform that only the Olympics offer.”
The PGA Tour, which does not manage any of the men’s majors, also is considering giving the men’s winner a spot in the Players Championship.
–Esteban Toledo never qualified for the Masters in 21 years on the PGA Tour, so he figured out another way to finally get to Augusta National.
The 53-year-old from Mexico walked inside the ropes for much of the week at the first major of the year as the caddie for his friend, Sandy Lyle of Scotland, the 1998 Masters champion.
“A dream come true for me,” said Toledo, who never won on the PGA Tour but has claimed four victories on the PGA Tour Champions. “You walk through the gates, and you get a feel for the honor, the prestige. Walking these fairways, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Toledo made $3.7 million in his career on the PGA Tour, and he had several chances for the victory that would have put him in the Masters.
Standing under an old oak tree outside the clubhouse at Augusta National, he talked about some of the victories that got away.
Said Lyle: “He always made it clear to me, he said, ‘I want to caddie for you sometime at the Masters.’ I love his enthusiasm. It’s just nice, sometimes, to make somebody’s dream come true.”
The dream ended a little early, as Lyle shot 76-81–157 and missed the cut by seven strokes.
–Masters rookie Rafael Cabrera Bello of Spain hoped to play practice rounds with two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal last week to learn some of the secrets of Augusta National.
However, the 50-year-old Olazabal remained at home in Spain because he is dealing with rheumatoid arthritis.
So Cabrera-Bello found another way to do it, communicating with his one of his idols via text.
“(Olazabal) texted me to congratulate me when he knew I was in,” Cabrera Bello told Reuters. “I told him I would be hassling him for advice inside the ropes and for his memories of his championship moments.
“He’s been very helpful and nice about this.”
Olazabal is part of the impressive Spanish legacy at Augusta, having claimed two of the four Masters titles won by Spaniards, in 1994 and 1999. Seve Ballesteros won in 1980 and 1983.
“I’ve thought about Ollie a lot more because he’s won here, but (Jimenez) is a really good friend,” Cabrera Bello said. “I reached out to him, too.”
Cabrera Bello earned his spot in the Masters by climbing into the top 50 of the World Golf Rankings, reaching No. 33 when he beat Rory McIlroy, 3 and 2, in the consolation match of the WGC-Dell World Match Play.
The 31-year-old Masters rookie played nine holes at Augusta with 2003 champion Mike Weir of Canada on Tuesday and played 18 holes with Garcia on Wednesday.
“It’s more perfect than perfect,” Cabrera-Bello said of Augusta National. “I was almost 10 the first time (Olazabal) won and almost 15 the second time. Obviously, we always dreamed about playing here and dreamed about winning here. I feel really honored to be here.”
Cabrera Bello made the cut in his first Masters and closed with a 70 to tie for 17th.
—Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, was forced to miss the tournament last week for the first time since 1994 because of chronic back issues.
“Actually, it’s gone down into his hip,” said Jim Nantz, CBS commentator and Couples’ good friend, who was his roommate at the University of Houston.
Couples, 56, has remained relevant at Augusta National despite his age. He shared the 36-hole lead in 2012, was one shot behind going into the weekend in 2013 and has five top-20 finishes since turning 50, including sixth in 2010.
This season, Couples has played in only three tournaments, two on the PGA Tour Champions and in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, where he claimed two of his PGA Tour victories in 1990 and 1992.
He missed the cut this time in Los Angeles and was in obvious discomfort.