You don't often get a chance to look Tiger Woods straight in the
eye. Usually his tunnel vision is operating, and then there's the
brim of his hat, curved, it seems, to keep us out. But there he
was on the practice putting green at Augusta National last
Thursday afternoon, at half past one, waiting for his round to
begin, his eyes wide open. He was steps away from the 1st tee and
the first shot of the year's first major. He took a long look at
the huge leader board beside the 18th hole and ran his eyes
across the hole-by-hole scores of Justin Rose's first
round. "Five under," Woods said to his caddie, Steve Williams.
The world's best golfer already trailed by five. People, dozens
of them, stared at Woods as he studied the board. You didn't want
to be rude, but you couldn't help it. He's the star of the show,
slump or no slump. Your eyes go to him. His were watery and
cloudy, yellowish. If eyes are windows to the soul, Tiger's soul
was dog-tired on Thursday afternoon. His eyes looked old. The
rest of him looked as if he could go 15 rounds with anybody.
He remains the game's only true star. You can say of him, and no
other golfer, that nothing he does is ordinary. A few minutes
earlier Woods had spotted a broken tee as he walked off the
driving range. He had been using the mid-iron in his right hand
as a walking stick. Without breaking stride he flicked the tee up
in the air, bounced it once off the face of the club and then
swatted it away. Can you do that? That's why we watch him. It
doesn't matter if he never hits another fairway again. He remains
out of this world.
He played the first two rounds with Casey Wittenberg, the
19-year-old U.S. Amateur runner-up, and Thomas Bjorn, the Danish
Ryder Cupper and a friend. In the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic,
Bjorn played four rounds with Woods and defeated him. If you want
to earn Tiger's respect, just beat him. Hal Sutton is on that
list. Or do something in golf nobody else has done, like Byron
Nelson, who won 11 consecutive events in 1945. Lord Byron, 92
years old now, was sitting by the 1st tee, part of the welcoming
committee there. Tiger shook hands with a few greencoats, with
Wittenberg and Bjorn, with several representatives of golf's
officialdom, but only when he shook hands with Nelson did he take
off his hat.
Then it was his turn to play. Maybe Woods was nervous because he
hadn't won a major since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, or maybe
Johnny Miller is correct and Woods's swing is all screwed up, or
maybe he was already worried about trailing Rose by five.
Whatever, his opening tee shot was horrible. It started left and
stayed left, and only a fortunate bounce off a kindly pine kept
it in play. To look at Tiger's face, you would have thought he
had just striped one down the middle. He was the picture of calm.
But when his approach shot missed the green, he stood over his
divot with his club raised high, like Abraham ready to drop the
knife. You think it's easy to play golf when everybody's watching
you and expecting only miracles? It cannot be.
April 18, 2004
We're lucky to live in the era of Tiger. Wittenberg knows that.
He missed Hogan, he missed Nicklaus, but he's getting Woods.
Coming off the 2nd tee, Wittenberg tried to chat him up. There
are guys who could have done that, get Woods to talk after an
opening bogey. Bjorn could do it, Chris Riley could do it, maybe
a couple of others could. Wittenberg could not, not yet, anyway.
Woods stared down the fairway, gave a minimal answer and did
nothing to extend the conversation. On the 3rd green, when
Wittenberg hit an 18-inch putt 10 feet past the hole, spectators
flinched. One man muttered, "Oh, kid." Woods did not move. He was
standing off in the shade, leaning on his putter as if it were a
cane, not wasting a smidgen of energy or emotion.
People who know Woods say he is frugal, but maybe it's more
accurate to say he doesn't like to waste anything. His caddie is
the same way. When Tiger was on the practice tee, Williams hunted
down loose tees lying on the ground for his man to use. On the
4th tee Woods took a long sip of water from a short plastic
bottle and handed it to Williams, who polished off the remaining
few ounces before refilling it. Going up the hill to the 4th
green, Woods walked like an old man, with short, slow steps, a
study in conservation. Walking down the 7th fairway, he ate
shelled nuts out of a large plastic bag, refueling.
Storm clouds moved in, and there was a brief, intense rain shower
while Tiger played the 7th and 8th holes. He never went to a
rainsuit and barely used his umbrella while playing a series of
loose shots with the right side of his pale-blue shirt darkened
by rainwater. (Wittenberg looked as dry as if he had been playing
in the desert.) Woods went out in 40 and he was bloodied, but he
was soldiering on. He was grim only over his shots and
immediately after them. Between holes Woods and Bjorn, playing
even worse, were yukking it up. They marched down the 10th
fairway together stride-for-stride, with the sound of nearby
thunder filling their ears. When they were nearly at the bottom
of the hill, a horn sounded, suspending play. When it blew, they
slapped each other on the arm and laughed out loud. A bet, of
some sort, had been settled.
The rain delay lasted two hours, and when they resumed play at
6:15, it was in a fading, misty light. After a par on 10, Woods
played through Amen Corner with a backhanded tap-in, with a
tossed club at his caddie, with a slight hitch in his walk, his
right leg not quite keeping up with his left, and with three
straight pars. Then on 14 he marked his ball with a coin and a
tee, so he could see it in the twilight. The three golfers
finished 14, and play was suspended as they were making their way
to the 15th tee. Somebody asked Woods if he wanted a ride to the
clubhouse in a van. "I'm going to walk and punish myself a little
more today," he said. Bjorn asked Woods if he was sure. Woods
answered, "Do we deserve a ride?" They walked the 10th fairway
together for the second time that afternoon, only the wrong way
this time. Woods reached the clubhouse, bounded the 14
semicircular steps by twos to the second-floor Masters club room
and then slipped away into the night, past a group of reporters
who were talking to Jack Nicklaus.
Friday morning brought a new day and the continuation of an old
round. It also brought, for Woods and nobody else in the field,
white shoes and a white hat and, you guessed, clear eyes
underneath it. This time his opening tee shot was perfect. The
bleachers around the 15th green were already packed at 9 a.m.
when Woods made birdie the easy way, with two putts. The crowd
around the 17th green was six deep in all directions as Woods
examined a 10-foot par putt, stalking it down as if his life
depended on it. Forty out, 35 in, a 75 that could have been an
80, except Woods doesn't shoot 80. He doesn't let anything get
too far away from him. That's why he doesn't miss cuts, even in
the midst of what is now a seven-major slump.
Woods had only about a half hour between the end of his first
round and the beginning of his second. He went straight to the
practice tee. His caddie was already waiting for him with two
bags of Nike practice balls in his hands.
"Stevie," Woods called out to him, moving him over to the far
right side of the range, at least 100 feet from the nearest pro.
Woods handed Williams two packages of game balls in unmarked
white cardboard sleeves. He and Williams dumped the practice
balls on the ground, squatted like catchers and sorted through
them, searching for any strays that might have sneaked in.
He warmed up, went to the putting green, then went to the 1st
tee, where he shook hands with everybody and played his tee shot.
Then he played his second round precisely as he had played his
first, a million eyes on him. The only thing different was where
his ball went and how many strokes he needed. Afterward he
answered a few questions about his 75-69 start. "You have to take
baby steps, slow and steady improvement," he said. And then he
began the wait for round three, when he would do his whole
thing--his whole idiosyncratic, practiced, repetitive,
"I'M GOING TO WALK AND PUNISH MYSELF A LITTLE MORE," Woods said
as play ended, declining a ride to the clubhouse.