Tiger Woods is back, and he describes himself as "a walking miracle.'
Woods, competing at the Masters for the first time since 2015, met the media at Augusta on Tuesday and mused on his age, the youth of his competitors, his back and more.
Here is the full transcript from the 14-time major champion's press conference Tuesday ahead of Thursday's opening round:
Moderator: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and what has been truly a highly anticipated return to the Masters, we are greatly pleased to welcome to the press building our four‑time Masters champion, Mr. Tiger Woods.
Tiger, it is great having you back, and thank you for the time.
Tiger Woods: Thank you. No, it's great to be back.
Moderator: 1997. 21 years ago. You're 21 years of age, and you win by 12 strokes. Looking back now, where does that fit in the Tiger Woods' scrapbook of life?
Tiger Woods: Well, of all the tournaments I won, that was by far the most important tournament I've ever won. That was my first tournament as a ‑‑ first Major Championship as a professional. In 1997, that was the last year they changed the rule on the PGA TOUR, in '98 that we would be getting a 10‑year exemption on the TOUR. So I had a job for the next 10 years out here. And so, I mean, you guys laugh at it now, but, I mean, it was the coolest thing in the world. In '98 Mark wins twice and only gets five years. So it was a big thing for me to be able to win the Major Championship and to do it here at Augusta National, with my dad there, and it was just an incredible week and one that I certainly will never ever forget.
Moderator: Well, it has not been even a year since your last surgery. And was there a moment or a time or a feeling when you felt, yes, I can compete in 2018 Masters?
Tiger Woods: That was probably not until after we played the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in December. But prior to that, no, I hadn't played a tournament yet. That was my first tournament back. I felt very comfortable, felt very good. The body was ‑‑ it was good, but just really stiff.
But after a few tournaments in, I felt more comfortable. I started getting used to what I could do, and then I started putting the pieces together that started preparing to play events, started competing and keeping score and posting numbers, and all of a sudden I started getting my feels back, and here we are.
Moderator: Great. We'll open it up now for some questions.
Q. Could you talk about how today's practice round with Phil came about and when the last time you guys played in a non‑team event in a practice round together and how much fun the atmosphere was?
Tiger Woods: Yeah, just Phil's was off, so off yesterday, just came in here to register. He asked Joey if we had ‑‑ we were free for a game. And we were free yesterday, but he was taking the day off. And so Phil and I talked about it and decided to play today. We partnered up against Thomas and poor Freddie. It was a long golf course for Fred, but he had a young stud as his partner. But it was good, though, because it was an appearance fee, so...
(Laughter.) We enjoyed it.
Q. Two questions, are you looking into buying one of those shirts that Phil was wearing today?
Tiger Woods: I always give him a little bit of grief about that. The only thing that was missing was a tie.
Q. And we have heard a lot about your back, how it's doing. How is the rest of your body doing?
Tiger Woods: The rest of my body's doing fantastic. I feel great. I feel like I've really put a lot of pieces together. We have worked on what body parts to get stronger, what body parts need to be more limber, and I feel fantastic. It's just a matter of now going out there and competing and playing and posting numbers.
Q. You've been able to prepare for this tournament, playing five events, obviously you came up here yesterday, today, whatever you were able to do at home last week, can you put in perspective just how futile ‑‑ knowing that, how futile that your attempts were the last two years trying to get ready for a tournament you obviously couldn't play?
Tiger Woods: Yeah, in hindsight it was a big pipe dream. My back was fried. To be able to ‑‑ I was trying, whether it was cortisone shots, epidurals, anything to take away the pain so maybe I might be able to withstand a week.
Nothing worked. My disc was gone. So given how I feel now versus then, I mean, it's just night and day. I've got - just how I felt coming here for the dinner and when I left, and now that I'm walking this golf course and playing and hitting shots and not having to think about anything, obviously it's been less than a year since my back procedure.
Q. Some people are saying that if you were to go and win here this week, it would rank as the greatest sporting comeback of all time. I wonder if you have a view on that. And in any case, what for you is the greatest sporting comeback of all time?
Tiger Woods: Well, I have four rounds to play, so let's just kind of slow down. I've had anticipation like this prior. If you remember the build‑up was from the PGA of 2000 to the Masters of 2001, nine months of building up, what that tournament would mean. And it's the same thing. I got to go play and then let the chips fall where they may, and hopefully I end up on top. But I got a lot of work to do between now and then.
As far as greatest comebacks, I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is the gentleman who won here, Mr. Hogan. I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won Major Championships. The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs and just the ‑‑ how hard it was for him to walk, walk period, and he ended up walking 36 holes and winning a U.S. Open. And that's just ‑‑ that's one of the greatest comebacks there is, and it happens to be in our sport.
Q. How would you describe your relationship now with Phil? We obviously are fascinated by it. Are you better friends? Do you find yourself, you personally, a little more interactive on the course with your competitors, but specifically with Phil?
Tiger Woods: I think Phil and I have ‑‑ we have been through it for so long and we have been together on these teams long enough, and then when I got hurt and I had to take a different role on the teams, being assistant captain and really trying to help out on the side, how best I possibly could, Phil was great. He was trying to help me out when I was trying to make a comeback, my body wasn't feeling very good: How can I help?
And our friendship has gotten stronger over the years. We have competed a lot of times coming down the stretch in events. We were joking today about some of the thoughts that transpired here. We have gone through it a long time, and the better part of 20 years our friendship has certainly gotten a lot better.
And I think it's just age as well. We're at the tail end of our careers, we both know that. He's 47, I believe, and I'm 42, and we have had a great 20‑year battle, hopefully we'll have a few more, but we understand where we are in the game now versus where we were in our early 20s, battling for who is going to be No. 1, and that was then and certainly this is now.
Q. I was thinking back, it's been eight years since we all were talking about your personal life and you were criticized by a lot of us, certainly by me, by Billy Payne and others. I'm wondering now when you look at the political climate when you look at where we are as a country, if we ‑‑ if you look back and say that was harsh or unfair, that maybe you were treated too harshly. Curious about that.
Tiger Woods: Yeah, I'm really excited to play the Masters this week.
Q. May I follow up and just ask: What did you learn, if anything, from that moment? I'm just ‑‑
Tiger Woods: Certainly I learned a lot, and it's certainly helped me in my life and my career.
Q. In hindsight, this is a follow‑up to Bob's question, do you feel as if the competitor in you pushed to return from those first few back surgeries before your body was ready?
Tiger Woods: Oh, yeah, definitely. I did that too soon and I did that with my knee operations too soon. I had surgery in December in 2001 and played in 2002 at Torrey Pines and ended up winning the Tournament, but felt awful. But still won.
Q. So that — and that is what mattered.
Tiger Woods: No, that's what we do as athletes. We want to compete. We want to get out there and mix it up. And part of being an athlete is dealing with pain. Unfortunately, we're pushing the boundaries of our bodies and minds, and unfortunately a lot of times we go over the edge and we break down. But thank God there's modern science and fix us and put us back together again.
Q. I just wanted to ask you, somebody like Shubhankar Sharma from India who is 21 years old and he says that he is in the game and what he is doing right now is for ‑‑ because of someone like you, watching someone like you. What does it mean to you at this stage of your career, as a 42‑year‑old statesman of the game, when some of these youngsters come up and say things like this?
Tiger Woods: It's — I'm still getting used to that part because I don't feel like it's been that long that I've been out here and competing and playing. I know it's gone by super fast. A lot of these kids have — some of their first memories are of when I won my last Major Championship. That's what's crazy. Like, for instance, we're talking about Thomas Pieters today, he was born only a couple months before Fred won here. So it just puts in perspective for us, and for me especially, hearing some of these guys.
It really started hitting home when I was playing ‑‑ or not playing, I was being a vice-captain of the last two teams and some of the questions they asked or some of the things they would say, that's what they saw. And it's flattering, it's nice, but I still want to compete and I want to beat these guys, and hopefully this will be a good week.
Q. Can you just take us through a little bit how ‑‑ well, first of all, are you a little bit surprised even to yourself at how much power you've been able to generate coming off a back surgery, multiple back surgeries? And if you're not surprised, or if you are, how you've kind of got there, just to be generating clubhead speeds that are comparable to what you were doing in your prime in a way?
Tiger Woods: It's crazy. I'll be honest with you, it is crazy. I didn't think ‑‑ I thought prior to the fusion surgery that that's pretty much it. I'll have a nice, comfortable, and great life, but I'll never be able to swing the club like I used to speed‑wise, just there's no way, lower back fusion.
But for some reason I don't have any pain. Yes, I'm much tighter, but I don't have any pain. And I've had to really work on the strength and different ways. For some reason it's come back. I wish I could tell you, I wish I knew, but all of a sudden I have this pop and my body and my speed's back and my timing. I'm hitting speeds that I would ‑‑ I hit in my prime, but, granted, my prime I was 43 1/2 inch steel driver, softer ball, and I was swinging about 126 to 129. Longer, lighter graphite, titanium, I'm able to hit balls harder now than I was then. But still the swing numbers are still up. I'm north of 120.
And that's what's the shocking thing, is I didn't think I would ever reach north of 120, and I'm cruising at 120. So that part is very exciting, because I know that if I can maintain this, I can play out here for a very long time and be able to have the length to get around pretty much any of the golf courses. It doesn't have to be specific golf courses that I have to play because some of the courses are just too big. That's not the case.
Q. So what is your training like now to avoid perhaps any reoccurrence, and how do you avoid thinking about the possibility?
Tiger Woods: Well, my team's done a fantastic job of getting me in shape. I am ‑‑ my core is stronger, my legs are not quite as strong as they used to be, but they're ‑‑ the endurance is back. And I certainly have a lot more mobility in certain parts of my body. That's where I have gotten more into non‑weighted activities like swimming. So trying to lengthen my body. I can still get the endurance, I can still get the long burn, I can still feel the lactate building. That's all great, but it's not loading my body like I used to.
And my practice sessions are nowhere near what they used to be. I'm not on that range practicing for four, five hours, just hitting golf balls, like I used to. It's concentrating for an hour and then I'm out of here. I can't stand out there for that long and do it.
So I've had to really be more focused on my practice sessions and try and get things done quickly because I just can't afford to push it for that hard and that long, and that's also maybe a function that I'm 42 now.
Q. When was the last time you felt as good as you are now?
Tiger Woods: It's been probably seven, eight years.
Q. The players, the respect for you from the players has been around since '96, if not before, and grown ever since, but how does it feel to be liked by so many of these guys, and why do you think that's happened? Is it age, is it absence for the last couple years, what?
Tiger Woods: I think they just missed my sharp needle. This is just like a fraternity. When somebody gets hurt and someone gets sick, we bond, we come and try to support them as best we possibly can. Because we all know what it takes to be at this elite level. I think that a lot of the players, especially the older players, really understood what I was kind of going through, because we have all dealt with injuries. Especially anyone who has ever had nerve issues, they understand. And some of my best friends are guys I grew up playing with on TOUR, but this new young group of guys, I got to really know them the last couple years on these teams. And trying to get to know them as best I possibly could so I could help them for those particular weeks, and we just had a great time. I've gotten to know them on many different levels. And to be able to watch them play, they have asked me questions, and I just tried to be as helpful as I possibly could. I think that's ‑‑ for some reason, I think this fraternity is very strong out here, and I'm part of it.
Q. Did you always feel like part of a fraternity out here?
Tiger Woods: Not when I first came out, no. I was the youngest one. And it wasn't ‑‑ when I first turned pro when I was 20, no one really did that at the time. I know that some of the European players, they didn't attend college over here in the States, they were playing professional golf earlier, but in the States that was very uncommon.
So it was not for probably two, three years before the guys that I had grown up playing golf with came on TOUR. And then you look at ‑‑ what was it, JT, Rickie, Jordan, Berger, all those guys grew up playing junior golf and college golf together. When Jordan first came out here, it was like a year or two before some guys started filtering out here, and then that was the same for me when I first came out.
Q. Seems the game's best are all playing their best at the same time. Please take yourself out of the equation; who do you consider the favorite this week and why?
Tiger Woods: I don't think there's one clear‑cut favourite. I think there's so many guys playing well at the same time. I think that's what is making this year's Masters so exciting, is that there's so many guys. There's not one, just one person that's going to run away with it earlier in the year. There are guys from the early 20s to Phil at 47 that have all played well.
That's what's exciting about this year. We know we're going to have to play well in order to win, and it's going to be quite a challenge. It's going to be fun. And I think that everyone's really looking forward to it, not just from the spectators, but from the players as well.
Q. You mentioned this would be your first time on bent grass greens in a couple of years. What does that entail for you adjustment‑wise? And then just your overall impressions of the golf course, having not been on it in a while, any changes, anything that has caught you by surprise?
Tiger Woods: Yeah, it's pretty funny, it is my first event in probably two and a half to three years on bent grass. I've been away from it for a while. At home my grass is Bermuda, and it's crazy. The ball rolls very true. It doesn't bounce all over the place and it's not being swept away with grain, and it's like a pool table.
This golf course is something else. The amount of break that we have to play here, I've played basically relatively flat golf courses with break. Maybe some have a little bit of movement, but nothing like this. This place is very different, the amount of movement.
That's one of the things I've tried to get used to again, is seeing how much break I can play, being more creative and open minded about how much there is, what the dying speed is. Sometimes it's twice as much as when I first look at it. That's just something I'm still getting used to, and I'll probably have a better feel by tomorrow and be ready to go Thursday.
Q. You were standing next to Phil on 15 as he was hitting those high soft flop shots, and you talked about your history going back so far. Is there any shot in his repertoire that makes you the tiniest bit envious, and what's your take just on Phil as a competitor inside the ropes?
Tiger Woods: Well, the shots that he was hitting back there ‑‑ the middle one wasn't so bad because it was still played uphill. That's what we were talking about, where to miss it to that flag. And, yeah, it was a great shot. But the one to the right was just silly. We were talking about the flop shot he hits. He has a 64-degree wedge, too. And so when he lays that thing open, it looks like it's actually faced backwards. He hits that thing, and I don't know how he doesn't hit himself. It's incredible.
What was the second part?
Q. Just him as a competitor?
Tiger Woods: As a competitor? Oh, man, he's very, very competitive. He's feisty. He's determined. He always wants to win. It has served him well. He believes in himself an awful lot. And you see the chances he's taken over the years, the reason why he does that is because he knows he can do it and he has that belief.
And that's what has separated him. That's why he's won so many tournaments, that's why he's won so many Major Championships, is that he truly believes he can pull it off. That's what have you to have; you have to have that belief.
Q. From a personal standpoint, how hard has it been for the last three Aprils to be on the sidelines? Did you put distance between us and yourself, or did you watch on television? Or how hard was that?
Tiger Woods: It was very difficult. Very, very difficult. The last two champions dinners I came up for, couple of years ago, it was really difficult because it was ‑‑ Arnold wasn't doing well, and Jack and I helped him into the dinner where we were going to take our photo, and then I helped him over to his table and his seat where he was going to sit down for the dinner. And that was tough to see my friend like that.
And then last year to feel so uncomfortable just sitting, because my nerve was on fire, it was going down my leg and it was just burning. So the last couple of years have been tough.
Then I've watched every bit I possibly could. I love the Masters. I will always watch it. It's ‑‑ I've played it, so I know where the guys are trying to hit the golf ball, and I said, whoa, that's going to be a tough one or, man, that's a hell of a shot, people don't realise how good that is. Things like that. I really enjoy that.
I enjoy the ambiance, the way the Masters Tournament really sets up for a dramatic finish. They know how to do it, and they do it right, from pin locations to tee setups. I just absolutely love watching it. It's more fun playing it, though.
Q. Have you been able to ‑‑ I know it's just been practice rounds, and the time you were here a while back it was pretty cold, but are you able to tell how much different it is compared to when you played here in 2015? Are you ‑‑ got shorter irons into par‑4s or the par‑5s? Also, any tweaks in your equipment since Bay Hill?
Tiger Woods: Yeah, I've tweaked my shafts in both my driver and 3‑wood. Course changes, there's been some resurfacing of greens since the last time I played. 12's a little bit different, 10's a little bit different.
As far as everything else, it looks like it's been here for 150 years. And that's just incredible how it's just ‑‑ they do it. And my book is the same as it was in 2015, so there wasn't a lot of changes that we had to do in our prep. Mainly I just had to get used to the feel of playing off of a lot of uneven lies, different shot shapes I've been playing, and in Florida hitting the ball low all the time, now I have to bring the ball up.
And then on top of that how to drop the ball in with the correct spin on these greens. Where to miss it to certain spots. I've done a lot of that prep at home just thinking about it, setting up scenarios in my head where I need to be.
Q. You spoke about the high level of competition here. Do you feel like you'll have to play your best golf to win?
Tiger Woods: I really hope I'm playing my best golf. This is a tournament I think that where experience does help a lot. I mean, I have played here and I've won here not playing my absolute best, but there's got to be a certain part of my game that's on. I think that this tournament really helps with having the experience and really understanding how to play this particular golf course.
I've played well over the years, I've won here a few times, but all those years that I've won, one part of my game has certainly stood out. And whether it's driving the ball like I did in '97 and putting it a couple years where I really putted well or hitting my irons and hitting a lot of greens, but not only missing, missing in the correct spots every single time, there's got to be some sort of certain part of my game that's got to be on, and hopefully this will be one of those weeks.
Q. You wrote recently that you think you've had a second lease on life, you are now a walking miracle. I wonder if you could expand on that and just give us an idea of how dark a place you were in and how far you've had to climb.
Tiger Woods: Well, it's been a tough road. I've described a little bit of it, the pain of just sitting there and the amount of times that I've fallen because my leg didn't work or I just had to lay on the ground for extended periods of times. Those are some really dark, dark times.
The reason why I say I'm a walking miracle is that I don't know if ‑‑ I don't know if anyone who has had a lower back fusion that can swing the club as fast as I can swing it. That's incredible. Some guys have said, yeah, I need to fuse my back so I can hit it harder. No, you don't want to go through that.
But that's why I say that. It is a miracle. I went from a person that's been ‑‑ who really had a hard time getting up, walking around, sitting down, anything, to now swinging the club ‑‑ you saw it at one of the Trackman's, 129. That is a miracle, isn't it?
Moderator: Well, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all very much. And, Tiger, we wish you every success this week.