Neither injury nor illness keep golf's greats from playing in the Masters

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Jordan Spieth watches his shot on the 12th hole during a practice round in preparation for the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Min Woo Lee stared at the 20-pound dumbbell sitting in the corner of the gym with unbridled contempt.

Just days earlier, while performing the last rep in a series of side glute bridges, the Australian had thrown it down and somehow clipped his finger. Bad luck made even worse by the timing. The three-time winner on the European tour was due to fly out soon for the Masters, and the swelling in his damaged digit was bad enough to head to the doctor.

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“I thought it was OK because I could move it. It was just red,” Lee said. “Then they came in and said, ‘You've broken it.'”

He recounted the story after a practice round at Augusta National this week, because even with a broken finger, there was no way the 25-year-old Lee would miss playing in the season's first major. And that's in many ways a testament to the reverential nature of the championship and the great lengths those fortunate enough to be invited will go through to play in it.

“Well, this tournament has meant so much to me in my life and my family,” said Tiger Woods, who has played through more injuries than anyone while winning his five green jackets over nearly three decades.

“It’s been a part of my life to have won here as my first major as a pro, hugging my dad, as you saw, then a full circle in 2019 to hug my son,” he said. “It has meant a lot to my family. It’s meant a lot to me. I always want to keep playing in this.”

So there was Woods, with his fused ankle and balky back, carefully traversing the hilly property again this week.

There was no way Fred Couples would let his own chronically sore back keep him away. Or Jordan Spieth would let his ailing wrist cause him worry. Or Cameron Smith would concern himself with a bit of food poisoning, Wyndham Clark his own back or Akshay Bhatia that shoulder that popped out on his way to victory last weekend at the Texas Open.

“I’ve had it happen two, three times. I had a full dislocation playing pickleball a couple years ago," Bhatia said. “It’s a weird, weird experience, because I had so much adrenaline so I had no pain kind of in that playoff. But it is definitely something we’re going to have to work towards, and I have a lot of trust in my team that we can tee it up on Thursday.”

Couples has been withdrawing from events on the PGA Tour Champions because of his latest back trouble, but the 1992 Masters winner has done everything possible to be on the grounds this week. He had several cortisone shots last week, and he even brought his physiotherapist, Chad Beauchamp, all the way from Southern California to help him out.

In fact, Couples put off an MRI to better determine what is causing the pain until next week, after the Masters.

“I’m not hitting it very far and I have a lot of woods in my bag, as you can see," he said, "so hopefully I can get through it.”

Spieth has been dealing with an injury to his extensor carpi ulnaris, a major tendon in the wrist. It tends to flare up on him, and when that happens, the three-time major winner can find himself unable to do much for a day or two.

“Typically, as the week goes on, it gets better and better, using it more and more,” Spieth said. “But yeah, it’s something that I don’t think there’s really anything I can do other than rest. And I’m not resting it anytime soon.”

The sports landscape is filled with tales of perseverance, often on the biggest stages — think Willis Reed playing through a torn muscle for the Knicks in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson on two bad legs hitting a walk-off homer in the 1988 World Series or Kerri Strug's vault on a broken ankle to help the U.S. win gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics.

How about Woods, who was dealing with a stress fracture after arthroscopic knee surgery when he arrived at Torrey Pines for the 2008 U.S. Open? He seemingly played the week on one leg and beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff.

More recently, and more timely, Tony Finau was playing the Par 3 Contest on the eve of his Masters debut in 2018 when he holed out for an ace. Finau took off to celebrate, missed a step and gruesomely dislocated his ankle. But he popped it back into place, underwent a quick precautionary MRI, iced it for hours and was able to play the next day.

Finished in the top 10 that week, too.

Because for Finau, like so many others, it would take more than injury or illness to miss playing in the Masters.

“It's the only major we play on the same site, the same venue, each and every year,” Woods said, “and we get to tell stories and catch up with friends, and for me, get a chance to catch up with idols and the people that I looked up to my entire life.”


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