Tiger Woods is back at the Masters this week for the first time since 2015, chasing his fifth green jacket at the historic PGA tournament in Augusta, Georgia.
Having not won the Masters since 2005 — four years before his life unexpectedly derailed over one tumultuous Thanksgiving weekend — it’s no surprise that all eyes are on the 42-year-old golfer.
Also returning to the iconic golf course is “SportsCenter” anchor Sage Steele, who is covering the Masters on ESPN for the second consecutive year. “I am still in awe over last year’s experience and I can’t believe it is year two now,” the longtime sportscaster (and amateur golfer) told TheWrap of the honor. “It was one of the best things I had ever done professionally and I really got to smell the azaleas.”
As for Woods’ return to the 84-year-old tournament, “I am so thrilled. I think everyone is thrilled, and if not thrilled then at least curious to see how he does,” Steele said, admitting she hadn’t thought Tiger would be back but “as a fan of sports, golf, perseverance and overcoming adversity,” she’s happy that he is.
“Who better defines those traits than Tiger Woods? There are so many life lessons that can be learned from him already, even if he doesn’t make the [Masters] cut,” Steele said.
“He could have quit a long time ago with the amount of pain — forget about the other personal stuff — in his body,” she said. Woods, who has endured multiple knee and back surgeries over recent years, cited back pain as the reason why he was on prescription painkillers when arrested for DUI in August 2017.
“For him to push to the point physically (which also means mentally) to get back and be competitive … I am in awe of him,” Steele said. “It will be interesting to see the increase in the ratings based on his presence here in Augusta. It could be unmatched across the board.”
Woods was public enemy number one among many people following his high profile split from ex-wife Elin Nordegren, which involved numerous mistresses (most notably Rachel Uchitel), his Escalade crashing into a fire hydrant, and a 45-day stint in rehab for sex addiction.
However, when asked if she thinks the world will forgive Woods if he wins the 2018 Masters, Steele replied: “I think many people already have forgiven him. You look back at other athletes who have been ‘forgiven,’ is Kobe not the definition of that? Just last weekend with the women’s Final Four and the story with the Notre Dame team … see how he’s now the hero of so many women,” she said.
“I think we are a forgiving society. Tiger came back and he came back different — he smiles a lot more, he doesn’t take anything for granted and that was intentional with this comeback,” she added.
Regardless of what other people think, “I hope that he has forgiven himself,” Steele stressed. “We all have ‘stuff.’ That’s my nice word for it. To judge others is wrong. He is living his own life. I don’t want to talk about his past at all and I hope that is not brought up this week … I am pretty sure he is still dealing with it in the present and will be in the future. Let’s enjoy the beauty of who he is as an athlete right now.
“The timing is perfect and it is not an accident, as we all know. This was always his place. It’s lining up to be an awesome weekend and Tiger always plays Augusta differently — and better than so many.”
Despite the media focus on Woods, there are plenty of other top contenders in the Masters’ field this year — many of whom have a better chance at winning than he does (Woods currently has odds of +1200, according to Forbes).
“I don’t think that we [ESPN] can go wrong by going heavy on Tiger, but we’re not going to ignore the names that are out there, and once it gets going on Thursday, who knows?” Steele said.
“How these guys play will dictate our coverage,” she explained. Other intriguing storylines include Dustin Johnson, who was sidelined in 2017 after falling down some stairs. “It was riveting to see him try to get out there and he just wasn’t able to … to watch him wincing, I am really curious to see how he does based on that huge disappointment last year,” Steele said.
“We’ll all be watching Sergio Garcia as the defending champion. His life has changed so much personally with a marriage and a brand new baby. I want to see what Jordan Spieth will do … no matter what, everybody brings their best to Augusta,” she promised.
One of the stars of Masters weekend is the Augusta National Golf Club itself, and Steele revealed why it is so revered.
“There is an aura to it that I can’t describe. It just feels different because of the history — even walking around, I have the music stuck in my head, the birds are tweeting,” she told TheWrap. “On Saturday last year after I wrapped filming, I was able to go out and enjoy the course and watch the golf. You are not allowed to have cameras and phones here, so you are forced to be in the moment, which is impossible pretty much anywhere on this planet right now. There is no place like it. There is not a single blade of grass out of place — it is perfection,” she said.
“My life defines chaos so to be at Augusta National for the Masters is quite the opposite. It’s so relaxing and good for the soul — it makes me feel calm and serene, and I never feel like that!” Steele laughed.
For the 11th year, ESPN covers the first and second rounds of Masters Tournament with Steele joined by a number of analysts including Andy North, Curtis Strange and Scott Van Pelt.
CBS will then air the weekend’s action from Augusta.