It's true: Tiger Woods did play an 18-hole practice round at Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday.
However, the four-time Masters champion is not yet certain if he'll play next week in the year's first major.
After Woods finished his practice round with two Augusta National members and caddie Joe LaCava, Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, maintained a cautious tone.
"Tiger clearly is working hard and he will advise as to when he is ready to play competitively," said Steinberg in an email to ESPN.com.
Speculation grew on Tuesday that Woods was preparing to compete in the Masters with an Augusta Chronicle report that Woods' private jet was parked at Augusta Regional Airport. On Monday, Golf World reported Woods had been shooting better scores at his home club, Medalist, in Florida and that observers said Woods had regained the "edge." Last week, Woods' friend and former Stanford teammate Notah Begay III said Woods had improved to a "50-50" chance to play the Masters from a 1-in-10 chance earlier in March.
A year ago on March 31, Woods underwent a microdiscectomy procedure on his back to alleviate pain. He then missed the Masters for the first time in his pro career to recuperate. Since the procedure, Woods has made just seven worldwide starts, including pulling out of two tournaments, finishing tied for last in his Hero World Challenge in December and missing the cut at the PGA Championship and Phoenix Open. In Phoenix, Woods shot a career-worst 82 in the second round.
On Feb. 11, Woods announced he was taking a hiatus from competitive golf, saying he wouldn't play again until his game was "tournament ready."
Tiger Woods can't say Rory McIlroy didn't warn him.
When the current world No. 1 was 9 years old in 1998, McIlroy penned a letter intended for Woods that put the then-one-time major winner on notice.
What did the letter say? Paraphrasing to the New York Times Magazine, McIlroy's uncle, Brian, said it read: “I’m coming to get you. This is the beginning. Watch this space.”
McIlroy had just won the prestigious Doral-Publix Junior Golf Classic – a sign that the Ulsterman might have a distinguished future in the game. So he had plenty of reason to be confident, but writing that letter to the world's best golfer took some gall.
There's a good chance Woods never even saw the letter, though the Times didn't try to find out the fate of the letter from Team Tiger. Flash forward 17 years, and the two are both Nike staffers and friends. Maybe that's why McIlroy was reluctant to own up to writing that letter.
Asked about the accuracy of his uncle's recollection of the letter, McIlroy shyly said, “A lot of those memories have kind of blurred together. But, yeah, it went something like that.”
A Masters title would be the next step for McIlroy on the path to matching Woods' career. The 25-year-old would complete the career Grand Slam, becoming just the sixth man to accomplish the feat. It would also set up McIlroy for an opportunity to hold all four majors simultaneously were he to win the U.S. Open in June.
It wouldn't be a Tiger Slam so much as a McIlslam (or Rory Slam).
The Shell Houston Open is the one final tournament before the Masters. It offers the last spot in the year's first major -- that is, if the eventual winner isn't already qualified. That makes this tournament fascinating unto itself, but its Masters-inspired setup and strong field are a draw as well.
Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, fresh off their Valero Texas Open duel, headline the field. Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar are among the big names, too.
However, unlike most weeks, there are no clear cut favorites. With that, here are the best bets for the week at Golf Club of Houston.
1. Jordan Spieth — Spieth is going to be great this week (Masters Lite) and next week (Masters Heavy) because his short game is out of sight. He said this course makes him uncomfortable, but he’s been out of this world this season.
2. Patrick Reed — Patrick Reed doesn’t need a boost of confidence, but GC of Houston could help him feel very good going into a second crack at Augusta National as a pro.
3. J.B. Holmes — Holmes has been playing some great golf, a missed cut at Bay Hill aside. He’s been in the top 12 three times since 2009, including a playoff loss in ’09.
4. Jimmy Walker — Walker’s not going to mail in an event in his home state, but it’s hard not to think he won’t be tired from a hometown win. However, you have to love him at the Masters.
5. Lee Westwood — Westwood seems to have found some consistency, making all six PGA Tour cuts this season including three in the Florida Swing. Never missed a cash in Houston.
There are very few reasons why Tiger Woods would fly to Augusta, Ga. Really, there's probably one: to play at Augusta National Golf Club.
That's why an Augusta Chronicle report that Woods' private plane was spotted at Augusta Regional Airport on Tuesday has fueled speculation the four-time Masters winner will compete there next week.
Woods hasn't played on the PGA Tour since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open on Feb. 5 after 11 holes in the first round, citing back pain. Five days later, Woods released a statement saying he would not play competitive golf again until his game was "tournament ready." Woods skipped The Honda Classic in his hometown of Jupiter, Fla., did not qualify for the WGC-Cadillac Championship and chose not to play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament he has won eight times.
The tea leaves seemed to suggest Woods felt "tournament ready" again as friend Notah Begay III told 120 Sports that the 14-time major winner was "50-50" to play in the Masters -- better than Begay's 1-in-10 characterization when Woods announced his hiatus.
Golf World reporter Tim Rosaforte opined Monday that Woods would play at Augusta National on the basis of good scores posted at Woods' home club, Medalist, in Florida and reports from area golf friends who said Woods had the "edge" again.
Woods is yet to announce his plans, though it might be reasonable to expect something in the affirmative on Tuesday. However, Woods is under no obligation to tell Augusta National officials of his plans before his yet-to-be scheduled tee time for Round 1 next Thursday.