- Tiger Woods is in the mix at Augusta after a solid opening round, but his putter is keeping him from going low and contending. Can Woods straighten things out?
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The answer begins in the pinecones. There is one falling this way and one falling that way, and a ball coming down on the pine straw, rolling slowly away from the 17th fairway, a Bridgestone logo somersaulting until it stops with one word pointing up, in all caps: TIGER.
And as it sits there, so does a question, the one nearly everybody in the gallery has asked themselves, or a friend: Can Tiger Woods win this Masters?
“Fifteen feet!” a marshal says to the fans, but nobody moves that far, and then he says “Three steps!” and then “Three more steps” and finally “Bigger steps. You all are just learning to walk.” Everybody laughs but then Tiger arrives and he looks, in every way, like he has the answer, and it’s a clear yes: He can win the Masters.
At the moment, he is three-under par. He looks like he is in trouble but he doesn’t act like it. He asks a few fans to move and thanks them. He is asked if fans are giving him enough room behind him and he says, “Yeah, they’re cool.” He knows he has 195 yards to the pin and knows he will hit five-iron and his caddie, Joe LaCava, agrees immediately: “Yes. Without too much cut. Yes.”
Woods taps his iron on his shoes three times, he pauses for a moment, tells LaCava he will “let that gust go,” and then he hits it right where he wants, between two greenside bunkers, and he chips to a few feet, and there is your answer, except ….
He misses the putt.
Bogey. Two under.
And there is your answer: Woods can hit the longest shots, the most difficult shots, the recovery shots and the approaches to those undulating greens, and he can think his way around the course better than anybody else on it. But the short ones may be his undoing, and he knows it.
For the longest time, we wondered whether Woods would ever be healthy again. Then we wondered whether he could play great golf again. He has played plenty of great golf in the last 16 months. But what we don’t know is this:
Can Woods be golf’s greatest clutch player again?
Can he make more 10-footers than anybody else, especially with a tournament on the line? Can he make those four-footers to save par seem like gimmes? Or is the new Woods too balanced, too happy, too aware of others or just too old to return to his old self on the greens?
Woods played the par-four fifth hole almost exactly the same way as he played the 17th: wayward drive (this time into sand), smart approach short of the green, pitch to a few feet, miss the par putt.
If he makes those two short par putts, he is at four-under 68 now, and Augusta National is buzzing. If he makes those and sinks his quite makeable birdie putt on No. 8, which he thought would break left and didn’t … well, yeah, we’re playing the ifs-and-buts game, but this is Tiger Woods and these are the putts we expect him to make. Or at least: We did.
Several players passed Woods on the leaderboard Thursday afternoon, including some big names: Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Woods’s playing partner, Jon Rahm. Tiger is in this thing and he knows it. But he also knows that a good round should have been a bit better.
“I did all the things I needed to do today to post a good number—drove it well, hit some good iron shots, speed was good on the greens,” he said.
What he did not say was that he needs to putt better from 10 feet and in to win. Remember: in Woods’s last start, in the Dell Technologies Match Play he missed a four-foot putt to extend his quarterfinal match.
After he talked to the media Thursday, he went to the putting green. He was not the only star to do so; Rory McIlroy also said he would work on his putting after shooting an opening 73. McIlroy wanted to refine his reads. Woods needed to nail those short putts. He made countless in a row on the putting green, but he knows better than anybody: That’s just the putting green. He needs to do it on the course.
“I feel like I played well today,” he said. “I controlled my golf ball all day. I’ve shot this number and won four coats, so hopefully I can do it again.”
He has actually shot that number or worse and won four green jackets. But the fields are more talented now, improved equipment has tightened the difference between the best and very good, and Woods is not going to dominate like he did in his prime. The word TIGER still excites the golf masses like no other. He can still win. But not if he putts like this.