AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | In the wee small hours during the next few days, with no one to keep him company but his own wandering thoughts, Tiger Woods – if he’s honest with himself, and what are the chances of that? – will have to know that he had The Masters in the palm of his hands.
But as the sun set on a sultry spring afternoon, his attempt at a fifth green jacket wound up having been as futile as grabbing at smoke.
In an historic final round in which nine or 10 players had a legitimate shot at winning this Masters, Woods was the one most hoped for by the vast majority of patrons. In many ways it’s still Tiger’s world and we’re all just living in it. When he eagled the par-5 eighth early in the afternoon to steam out of the crowded pack and tie for the lead, the roars reverberating from atop the eighth and down through the valley of pines of Amen Corner were clearly the full-throated cheers of those who still love nothing better than to see Tiger at the top.
The record will show that Woods shot a 5-under 67 in the final round at Augusta National to come from seven shots behind third-round leader Rory McIlroy and gain a share of the lead halfway through the fabled back nine. As it turns out, Woods ended four shots back of unexpected champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, who birdied the last four holes to win his first major championship.
So, the 10-under total posted by Woods about an hour before Schwartzel finished was not nearly enough. However, we’ll have no idea what might have happened if Woods had posted 13 or 14 under, a figure he easily could have achieved, and let the rest of the leaders have a close look at that in the final excruciating hour that stood between them and glory.
After turning in 5-under 31 on the front nine, Woods three-putted the par-3 12th, missing a three-footer for par. At the par-5 13th, he had 7-iron for his second and pulled it badly long and left. He hit a poor chip and missed a 15-footer for birdie. He had about nine feet for birdie at the 14th and missed, then stuffed his 6-iron second at the par-5 15th to within five feet and missed that, coming away with a disappointing birdie. If there is such a thing.
Woods was asked what shot he’d like to have back on Sunday.
“We could drive ourselves crazy with that every week, couldn’t we,” he said.
After a first-round 71, Woods played his way into the tournament with a 6-under 66 in Friday’s second round and that’s when the electricity started popping. He was at 7 under, three back of McIlroy and the place was abuzz.
“I’m just trying to put myself in the mix come Sunday,” he said Friday afternoon. “It’s irrelevant who is there (on the leaderboard). My whole job is to get myself there with a chance with nine holes to go. That’s what we have always done. I’ve been successful at it in the past by doing it that way.”
He appeared to shoot that chance in the foot with a 74 on Saturday, which left him a full seven shots in back of the lead. Woods seemed to complain about every shot, and on a day when he should have been making a run at the leader, he was backpedaling at a rapid rate.
“I had two three-putts in there and then I hit just a lot of beautiful putts that didn’t go in,” he insisted afterward. “Could have easily been 3-, or 4- or 5-under par.”
In many ways, Woods is on the jagged edge of what this week really means to the rest of this season, or in many ways, the remainder of his career. On the one hand, it could be that finally, the work he has been doing with swing guru Sean Foley might be taking hold. Everyone knew The Masters would be his best shot at winning another major championship during this rebuilding period. Turns out everyone was right.
On the other hand, this also could mean that Tiger’s killer instinct is slipping into the shadows. At his best, he never would have played the stretch from 12 through 15 in even par from where he had the ball. He would have two-putted 12, birdied 13, birdied 14 and eagled 15. Take that, rest of the field. Schwartzel might have had a look at that run and decided he was playing for second place, just like everyone else who has spent the past dozen years staring at Tiger’s tail lights.
Having once owned the world’s best short game, Woods’ work on and around the greens is now more than a little suspect. His chipping is average at best and his putting is inexplicable. Why Foley would change that aspect of Tiger’s arsenal is beyond anyone’s reasonable explanation.
No matter the frailties of his golf game and personal life, past and present, after darkness fell at Augusta National and the 75th Masters, Woods had a considerable chance to win a 15th major championship and finally put the doubters to rest.
Wonder what he thinks about that?