AUGUSTA — Monday morning, and the intelligence gathering for Tiger Watch 2022 at the Masters was getting serious.

The Kepley family had driven here from Franklin, Tenn., spending the night in an overpriced hotel so as to get to the course as soon as it opened. Eight-year-old Cashman came dressed in the Woods Sunday Collection – red shirt, black pants. As the hours passed, the Kepleys began wondering whether they’d really get to see their guy. The whole idea of Woods choosing these rolling, severe green miles for his big comeback, after all, is so very preposterous.

Woods used to go off early here, sweeping the dew and getting a running start on the star-seeking mob. But he’s 46, beaten up from shoulder to toes, and like an old farm tractor at planting time, seems to require a little more time to warm up now.

Rather than guess, Cashman’s mom, resourceful in a mother’s way, went right to the source. Spotting Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie, Liz Kepley just approached him and asked: We’ve been here all morning, should we stay or start the drive home? Is Tiger coming out to play?

While posing for a picture with his guy’s young fan, LaCava suggested the family might want to hang on a couple hours more. You won’t be disappointed, he told them.

Then there was this, shortly before 3 p.m., after young Cashman already had been ushered inside the ropes for a special up-close view of Woods on the practice putting green and as Woods was launching a nine-hole practice round: “It was definitely worth the wait,” Liz said from among the huge throng assembled to see him off. “We’re big Tiger fans and weren’t even thinking we’d get to see him (when they got their practice round badges). And now this. Great.”

In ways sweeping and highly individual, Woods has made a huge impact here even before announcing his intentions for the real start of this shootin’ match Thursday.

In concept, it is one thing to ponder the improbability of what Woods might do here – coming back after more than a year after shattering his leg in a car wreck of his own making to compete in the major he has won five times. To walk well at this point is a victory. To believe he can, at 46, jump up off the physical therapist’s table and compete again with the generation of bombers he spawned is a great act of conceit and pride and will.

Then, actually witnessing the attempt only further strains the plausible.

You watch him walk to look for flaws in his gait, as if he were a thoroughbred going to the post. And, yes, something does seem a little off, that the injured right leg is a bit stiff and out of synch with the other. How can it not be? Or, is that just our imagination?

You do things you never would with anyone else, like count Woods’ swings in the practice area before he goes to the course, figuring he only has so many bullets and should waste none of them before Thursday’s first round. That’s 12 swings with the short iron, 10 with a mid-iron, another six with a long iron. And 16 cuts with various woods. All of them look useful. You just hope he has something left for the rest of the week.

You seek clues on the practice range as to his attitude. But Woods betrays nothing, neither smiling at just being able to hit balls again on a bright Georgia spring day nor wincing in discomfort or frustration. He was just working his game, as if he hadn’t almost lost a leg.

And you are reminded again of what Woods means to the Masters gallery and what it means to him.

Only one player is cheered at the practice tee for the simple act of pulling a tiger head cover off a driver and hitting one true. Only one player tilts these grounds as the people follow him like he was leaking $100 bills.

The voices in the mob are ever hopeful:

“He’s baaack!”

“It’s cat spotting time again!”

“He looks in great shape!”

And in return, while Woods can look a lonely figure scaling the incline of the first fairway, it’s the big crowd around him that may yet act like just the dose of cortisone he needs to make it to the first tee Thursday.

When fellow competitor Max Homa was asked if he was surprised by Woods’ presence here, he referred to the special nature that draws all these eyes to Woods.

“I’d be surprised if it was anyone else that’s ever lived. So, no, I’m not surprised. I am amazed,” Homa said.

Tiger Watch 2022 was all the better for the numbers that were here on duty. Due to COVID, no spectators were allowed in for the delayed fall version of the tournament in 2020. And only a few thousand made it last spring. But come this Monday morning, by 9 a.m., the line to get into the large merchandise building was the length of a hardy par-3, signaling that the Masters was back and the gears of impulse purchasing were whirring again.

Woods’ was not the only comeback story around here Monday. And the joy of a full house was everywhere.

Patsy Macknull, formerly of Atlanta now of Wilmington, N.C., was a regular at the Masters dating back to the 1970s. She and her husband were shut out in the COVID tournament but back again Monday. “What I’m looking forward to is just going around the course and reminiscing again,” she said.

“The feel of the Masters is back, and it’s a certain, special feel,” said Robert Booker, whose membership as a PGA teaching pro in Smyrna, Tenn., has gained him entry here for 17 non-COVID years. The virus took away the privilege, but now he was back watching the pros at the practice area and enjoying a Masters breakfast of a chicken biscuit and Coke.

“I thought about not coming but would have regretted it too much. I am never going to miss the chance to come here again,” said his buddy and fellow teaching pro Scott Merritt.

So, will Woods and his crowd be the story come Thursday’s first round? He still hasn’t announced, he’s still taking inventory of his body parts.

Might as well go back to the Kepley clan. Their gut feeling is as good as any other supposition.

“Oh, yeah, he’ll play,” said Cashman’s dad, Kris.

But can he compete?

“That would be a lot to ask,” he said. “But he is Tiger Woods and you can never count him out.”

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