AUGUSTA, Ga. — Buckle up, because Tiger Woods has a chance to win the Masters.
Not a wishful chance like last year, when seeing him walk these hallowed grounds bordered on surreal. Not a hopeful chance like at the beginning of this week, when there were reasons to believe but just as many to doubt.
He has a bona fide chance to win the Masters. Just look at the damn leaderboard.
It shows him at six under for the tournament, just one behind a quintet of major champions from the generation he inspired: Francesco Molinari, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen.
“This is now three straight majors that I’ve been in the mix,” Woods said.
In the mix, indeed.
The charge started on the ninth green, after he three-jacked the par-5 8th for a bogey that felt like a gut punch. He faced a steep uphill 40-footer for a bounceback birdie and probably would have left it short if it weren’t for a player who was 22 months old when Tiger first won here.
Haotong Li left his putt, on virtually the same line, three feet short, so Tiger gave his a little extra hit with his right hand. Rammed it home. Fist pump.
The crowd let out a roar of approval, yes, but it was just as much a plea. Keep doing this.
He hit three perfect shots to birdie 11, the hardest hole at Augusta. No fist pump this time. He wasn’t even close to finished. He moved with a sense of urgency—maybe, anticipation—to the tee of the delicate par-3 12th, and did exactly what you expected him to: stuck his tee shot to five feet.
That’s when the lights turned on, just as the party was getting really good.
Not 30 seconds after that approach landed and the bros hugged and the beer spilled, the horn sounded. Thunderstorms had arrived, or almost arrived—the sky was vicious but the rain not present—so players were rushed into vans shortly after 5 p.m. Done for the day, it seemed. Until they weren’t. Woods was back on that green 29 minutes later for a five-footer to get to within two of the lead and send the patrons into a distinctly un-patronlike frenzy.
He missed it.
“A little stiff when I came back out,” Woods said of the delay before quickly pointing out that he’s fine. He’s one back of the lead heading into the weekend at the Masters. Now is no time to show any weakness.
Those short misses, they’ve been a bit of a theme this week. If he were as good from short range as he used to be, Woods would be leading this shindig by himself. But he’s not. He misses more from inside six feet…but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hole his share of bombs.
One came at 14, where his tournament and his career almost ended by way of the flukiest of fluky accidents. He pulled his tee shot in trees down the left but found a window for his approach—how do these guys always have a window for their approach?—and pulled off a fantastic shot, threading his Bridgestone over one branch and under another. He scampered back toward the fairway, trying to see just how good that good shot was. He wasn’t the only one. A security guard from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation came rushing his way, a well-meaning but overeager attempt to shield Woods from onlookers. Right as he tried to slow up, he slipped on the rain-soaked mud and barreled into Woods' right ankle.
Luckily for Woods—and the security guard!—Tiger had already begun to lift his foot for the next step. Had it still been planted, well…let’s just say millions of Tiger fans would have a new public enemy No. 1.
“Accidents happen,” Woods said.
Perhaps he’d be singing a different tune if he didn’t drop the subsequent 30-footer for birdie. Five under. Two back. And the loudest roar of the day was still to come.
Woods was in danger of playing the par 5s in one over par when he stepped to the 15th green. He had parred No. 2 before that three-putt at No. 8. He failed to convert a simple up-and-in for birdie at 13. And he left his wedge approach into No. 15—his third shot, after another pulled drive forced a layup—30 feet short. No problem. A bucket, six under, and the fiercest Tiger fist pump of 2019.
Then, an extra deep breath. There was more golf to be played. When Tiger is playing his best, he moves in slow motion—every movement calculated, routinized, second-nature. He oozes a serenity that perfectly matched an Augusta National that was even more cathedral-like than normal. After the rain stopped, total calm prevailed. Wind didn’t dare interfere with the show.
The show’s ending was only okay, because Tiger missed a six-footer for birdie on No. 17 and a 14-footer for birdie on No. 18. Woods said he hit his lines on both efforts, so maybe it was just the golf gods getting even for making those long putts—and for leaving his ACL intact.
Whether Woods will privately rue those misses will forever remain a mystery. But here’s what we do know: when he tees off tomorrow with Ian Poulter, he will have a legitimate chance to complete—truly complete, with all due respect to the Tour Championship—possibly the greatest comeback in golf history.
Of course, there’s also a chance he shoots himself out of it, or that one of the 14 other players within three shots of the lead grabs this tournament by the throat. We are, however, guaranteed at least 18 hours of true Tiger hysteria at Augusta. And then he’ll hit his first golf shot of the day. How many more he needs after that will go a long way toward determining how much longer he—and the rest of us watching—can ride this wave.