AUGUSTA, Ga. – Well, there it was, for all the world to see, in a five-hole stretch at Augusta National Golf Club: the difference between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia. Woods is as mentally tough as any golfer in history. Garcia is a brilliant golfer, but he is always one mosquito bite away from shooting 83.
Look, Sergio: We love you, and we were thrilled you finally picked up that green jacket last year. But even you must admit that 15th hole Thursday was one giant steaming pile of basura.
Garcia made a 13 on 15, and that’s not even the worst of it. It was how he made a 13 on 15. After his first attempt at an approach landed in the pond in front of the green, Garcia then hit four virtually identical shots: they all landed on the green before spinning back into the drink. He didn’t try to take some spin off it, or make sure he was far enough above the hole that the ball would stay on the green. We all have bad days at the office, but most of us don’t walk headfirst into the same door repeatedly.
Garcia’s explanation: “It’s the first time in my career where I make a 13 without missing a shot. Simple as that. I felt like I hit a lot of good shots and unfortunately the ball just didn’t want to stop.”
“The ball didn’t want to stop.” I had no idea that the ball Garcia was playing was a Callaway Mercurial Bastard. This is Garcia’s glaring flaw: He always shows up with 14 clubs and the phone number of a personal-injury lawyer. He thinks the game is out to get him.
Tiger? He’s out to get the game.
Woods shot a one-over 73. It wasn’t a great number, but it was a vintage Tiger Woods round, because it easily could have been a 78, and any other golfer probably would have shot at least 75.
Woods stood on the 12th hole staring at four over. For at least 15 minutes, golf had punched him in the face. On 11, Woods asked the gallery to move back so he could run a shot up toward the green; the pin was in the friendliest possible spot, and he had a chance to make par. His ball hit a fan’s chair and stopped. Garcia would have sent a sternly worded e-mail to the company that made the chair. Woods made bogey to fall to two-under.
Then, on 12, Woods hit a lousy 9-iron that found Rae’s Creek. He took a drop, and was so annoyed with his third-shot pitch that he jumped up and down in frustration. A two-putt there seemed likely, and it would have put him at four over.
He drained a 20-footer for bogey and finished one over instead.
And the thing is, Tiger didn’t immediately go on a birdie binge. He didn’t even birdie either of the gettable par 5s on the back (or either of the two on the front, for that matter). He got back to one over because he is Tiger Woods, and nobody has ever been better at salvaging a round.
He made his bogey putt on 12. He birdied the par-4 14th. His drive on 15 settled into pine straw under a tree, but he pitched over the trees to the left side of the fairway, got on in three, and made par. Then he birdied 16, and here we are.
Garcia was looking for some kind of cosmic justice. Woods was looking to survive Thursday. And afterwards, Tiger knew exactly what he had done: “I got myself back in this tournament, and I easily could have let it slip away.”
This has always been his most underrated skill, finding a way to hang around when things go wrong. Or, put another way: hang around when golf happens. Woods played pretty well for stretches Thursday. The scoring conditions were surprisingly tricky. It wasn’t all that windy, but the wind kept changing directions, and a few times Woods thought he hit great shots but was left with what he called “defensive putts” above the hole.
He survived it all. And that means nobody should be surprised if he shoots 68 Friday and is in the hunt all weekend. This is what he does, and this is why the galleries were packed so thick for him Thursday.
He has played in front of huge galleries many times, of course, but I don’t think there has ever been anything quite like this on a Thursday at Augusta National. Some tournaments try to sell as many tickets as possible; Augusta National does not operate that way.
What made this gallery amazing was not how big it was. It was how it compared to everybody else’s. You could walk near the first tee when Rory McIlroy was teeing off, but not when Tiger did. I was standing near the 15th hole in 2013 when Woods’ approach famously hit the flagstick and bounced back into the water. That was on a Friday, and he was in contention, and there were nowhere near as many people there as there were when he reached 15 on Thursday. Amen Corner was so densely packed, I thought it was a line for a media buffet.
When Woods came back, he returned not only to contention but to the insanity that surrounds it. He is so much bigger and more famous than the other golfers that it’s laughable. Zach Johnson, a past champion here, gave a one-on-one interview outside the clubhouse and nobody tried to jump in. Meanwhile, Woods faced a throng. He always does.
When he was younger, Woods probably would have followed a round like this with a session at the driving range. He skipped it Thursday. He has to manage age and fatigue (he said he popped some ibuprofen at the turn) and make sure he is ready to go Friday. Shortly after he signed his scorecard, Woods was already talking about the weather changing and how the leaderboard would be packed. If it is, he will probably be on it. Garcia will not.
Sergio Garcia shot a stubborn 81 and will likely miss the cut. Tiger Woods shot a steely 73 and can still win his 15th major. This is the difference between them, as clear now as it ever was.