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Spotlight on Woods provides respite for McIlroy at Masters
Tiger Woods's decision to give it a go at the Masters, 14 months after suffering serious injuries to his right leg in a rollover car crash, has a hidden benefit for his rivals.
Fans -- back in full strength at Augusta National this year after two years of Covid restrictions -- flock to Woods, leaving the likes of Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy and two-time major winner Dustin Johnson to pursue the green jacket in relative peace.
Johnson, who won the Masters in 2020 when it was delayed to November because of the pandemic, said he always likes to "slide in under the radar."
The focus on Woods means McIlroy might face slightly fewer questions about his eighth attempt to complete a career Grand Slam at the Masters.
McIlroy said Woods's mere presence in the practice rounds, before he had even confirmed he planned to tee it up on Thursday, had riveted fans' attention.
"We were on the ninth green when Tiger and (Justin Thomas) and Freddie (Couples) teed off yesterday, and it was a mass exodus from the ninth green to the first tee," McIlroy said. "And then the back nine was lovely and quiet.
"That's a nice way to get through the first week and sort of go about your preparation -- unhindered."
But that doesn't mean McIlroy is unappreciative of the attention Woods brings to the game.
The 46-year-old hadn't played in more than a year when he was announced in March as the winner of the US PGA Tour's inaugural $8 million Player Impact Program bonus that rewards popularity based on factors such as internet searches generated, news articles written and sponsor exposure.
"He creates attention on the game of golf that no one else can," McIlroy said. "That's great for his peers. It's great for the media. It's great for this golf club. It's great for everyone.
"So any time Tiger Woods is involved, it's a wonderful thing."
Woods had indicated as recently as February that he had no idea when he would return to top flight competition.
Since his crash in February 2021 he has undergone arduous rehabilitation, with his only competition a low-key family tournament alongside son Charlie in December.
Just the suggestion that he might play the Masters, a quarter century after his first major victory launched a new era in golf, sent fans and even rival pros into a frenzy of speculation.
- Playing for No. 2 -
Spain's Jon Rahm noted wryly that just by practicing at Augusta amid the will-he or won't-he speculation, Woods had likely already locked up the next PIP bonus as well.
"The one thing we all know for sure is in three days out here Tiger's going to win the PIP for sure," Rahm said. "I think that's the biggest impact for all of us -- we're all playing for No. 2 now.
"It could help Rory," Rahm added upon reflection. "I know this week can be tough because every time he comes up here he's going to hear about the Grand Slam, and maybe having Tiger out here might (ease that).
"But when he sits here in this chair, you're all going to ask him about the Grand Slam opportunity and people on the golf course are still going to mention it."
With Woods's plans firmed up -- the 15-time major champion said he would tee it up barring a setback after his Wednesday practice -- McIlroy said it would be business as usual with Woods in the field
"I don't think it really changes much," McIlroy said. "You're trying to focus on yourself, and he can't stop you shooting a 67 if you play well."