- Tiger Woods, even at age 42, is tough to write off completely. But it’s appropriate to write him off almost completely, at least for this weekend at the Masters.
AUGUSTA, Georgia — The applause came slowly, almost as if from memory and appreciation, rather than from emotion or confidence. It was 17 minutes past four p.m. on a breezy Friday at the Masters and Tiger Woods walked between thin, protective ropes (They really should be velvet here, but that is another discussion) from the ninth green to the 10th tee. It is a walk he has made dozens of times in the last two decades, both as a conquering hero and a fallen one. He had just left an approach shot short of the ninth green, into a stiff breeze, and then salvaged par with a stubborn up-and-down. Tiger could always scramble. But he remained far from the lead, unthreatening. And he would fall further back in the ensuing three hours required to complete a long, uninspiring slog around Augusta National.
As he pushed up the slight hill to No. 10 in his Tiger Woods Nike spikes, Tiger Woods Nike pants and shirt and Tiger Woods Nike hat, fans lining the pathway—just one or two deep, a downgrade from Thursday’s adoration—began to applaud, and then to cheer. His name was shouted. Tiger. Woods smiled without showing his teeth, a flat-lipped appreciation of the support, from which he had missed for a long time. "Thank you," he said, almost silently, nodding, much the same way a player thanks the crowd for a birdie putt or a stiff approach. Four times in total. Thank you. There’s no doubting the kindness in the cheers or the appreciation from Woods. But it was all right on that thin line that separates ceremony from passion in the life of the aging athlete.
Woods shot a sloppy three-over par 75 on Friday at Augusta National, which, after his 73 on Thursday, leaves him at four over for the tournament. That puts him in a tie for 40th place, 13 shots behind Patrick Reed, who leads the Masters by two strokes over Australian Marc Leishman, who played the first two rounds with Woods. Woods made the cut for weekend play by one shot. His 36-hole score of 148 is his third-worst two-round total in 21 Masters appearances, and his worst since 2003, when he was five over after 36 holes and finished tied for 15th.
A few minutes after the finish of the five-hour, 41-minute round, Woods spoke cordially for five minutes with a small group of reporters. To a question phrased to frame his making the cut as a triumph because of the many, well-publicized hurdles that had presumably ended his career (Woods had not played the Masters since 2015), Woods said, "…. Putting it in perspective, six months ago, I didn’t know if I’d ever be playing again. But it’s incredible to have the opportunity again, to come out here and play this golf course. Now I’m in on the weekend. Even though I’m a lot behind, if I play a special weekend, shoot two rounds in the low 60s, you never know."
Okay. Let’s take that assessment and divide it into two parts. Second part first: There are 38 players and 13 strokes between Woods and Reed, and Woods has done almost nothing in two days at Augusta to suggest that he will come out on the weekend and shoot two rounds in the low 60s. Even he seems to get that. "I would have done it first two days if I had quit playing after 16," Woods said, meaning if he had played only 32 holes instead of 36. But also: "Let’s see if we can get 18 holes tomorrow." It’s a ridiculous long shot, but this is Tiger Woods, and even at age 42, with a lumbar spine fused less than a year ago, it’s foolish to write him off completely.
But it’s appropriate to write him off almost completely, at least for this weekend. Especially with day-long rain predicted for Saturday, which will further stress Woods’s uncertain game. The first part of his comment: Perhaps there is more greatness ahead for Woods. More victories. More majors. More Masters. We don’t know. He doesn’t know. His comeback to participate here has been stunning—he nearly won the Honda Classic in February. But right now in this moment, he lives in the superstar’s purgatory between greatness and retirement. He is not the iconic Tiger Woods of 1997 or 2005 or 2008 or even 2013, his first big post-scandal, post-injury season. He will probably never be any of these Tigers again. What he will be remains uncertain. What he has been here is average, trending ever so slightly toward lousy.
Of his second round, Woods said, "Well, I felt like I hit it well off the tee. I hit my irons awful today. I didn’t control my distance, my shape, spins." (On Thursday, he was dodgy off the tee and better with his irons). Also: "I hit a lot of beautiful putts and didn’t make anything." It might be argued that his putts would have been even more beautiful if they had fallen into the hole, but Augusta’s greens are notoriously slick and challenging. So… okay, fair enough.
Woods sent himself backsliding in the first five holes of his second round. He hit a near-perfect tee shot on the first hole, where he has often struggled at Augusta, but then flew his approach shot over the green and into the gallery. It was a breezy day, but Woods said the wind was not an issue on that shot. "No, it was me," he said. "I didn’t hit the ball very good." He made a bogey and fell to two over par.
Woods also sailed his tee shot on the 240-yard, par-three fourth hole over the green, but executed a touchy chip back within par range and made the putt. That might have steadied his round. It did not. On the 455-yard, par-four fifth hole, Woods went right off the tee and then blew his approach left of the flag and bounding nearly off the golf course, into a dense thicket of rhododendrons. Viewers watching coverage of the tournament were treated to the sight of one of the two greatest players in history walking into the bushes and disappearing from sight, like the ancient baseball players in Field of Dreams walking into Ray Kinsella’s cornfield.
(An intrepid cameraman joined Woods in the mess; at one point Woods stood next to a dead reed wobbling in the breeze, as if mocking Tiger for his errant swing; the entire tableau was one of those golf-only moments where a gifted professional is made to look like a unskilled amateur). Woods took a drop in the vegetation, chipped out and took two putts to make a double bogey six. Again, and to his everlasting credit, he flogged only himself for the miss. "I hit a crap shot," said Woods. "It was a bad shot. It was like the same shot I hit at one. Same shot with a longer club."
He made six consecutive pars, four of them creatively from inhospitable positions. Twice, at the eighth and 11th holes, he did hit solid putts that frightened the hole without dropping. But he dumped his tee shot on the 12th into Rae’s Creek and chipped nicely from the drop area to salvage a bogey. More creativity. He birdied the par-five 13th hole and then on the par-five 15th, stood for nearly two minutes after playing partner Tommy Fleetwood’s shot, waiting for the wind to die, before putting his second shot on the par five just off the back edge of the green, leading to a birdie. He gave that shot back with virtual three-putt from the back fringe of the par-three 16th. In the end, it was a well-earned 75.
Woods looked ahead. He said, "If I can drive like I did today, feeling-wise, and hit those shots, give myself a chance, and if I clean up my iron play… So if I get off to a quick start and get it rolling, get some momentum going, which I haven’t had so far…" That is a lot of ifs.
It was only on Tuesday of this week that Woods played a showy practice round with Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples. Both men raved about Tiger’s game. "The sound of [Tiger’s] ball is unreal," gushed Couples.
"I’m excited to see him play to so well," said Mickelson "And he is playing well."
These comments added to a month of buzz that Woods’s return would make this one of the best Masters in recent history. It was fun. Tiger alone tapped the brakes. "Well, I still have four rounds to play,’’ he said. "So let’s kind of slow down."
Indeed, he will play four rounds here. Although just barely.