AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Tiger Woods never has relied on generosity from others in his peerless career, but it came in handy in the rain and cold Saturday at Augusta National.
One stroke outside the cutline as the storm-delayed second round slogged toward its finish, Woods needed a bogey from someone, anyone, to backdoor his way into the Masters weekend and make his 23rd consecutive cut, tying the tournament record shared by Fred Couples and Gary Player.
It was Justin Thomas, one of Woods’ closest friends, who was the gift giver, playing himself from inside the cutline to outside with bogeys at the 17th and 18th holes, a finish so disgusting that when it was over, Thomas tilted his face skyward and let the rain hit him like a spray of gravel.
Woods was a beneficiary of his friend’s torturous finish (ultimately a late bogey by Sungjae Im would have let Woods sneak under the wire had Thomas not imploded), the reward being an afternoon tee time in conditions that had him dressed as if he were in the Iditarod rather than the Masters.
With temperatures in the 40s, the rain coming and going, the wind adding bite to the chill and the smell of woodsmoke drifting out of chimneys around the clubhouse, it felt more like winter than the advent of spring.
Perhaps frosty conditions on Saturday are becoming a new Masters tradition. A year ago there was no rain, but puffy coats and scarves replaced shorts and sundresses for the third round, suggesting that for everything Augusta National can influence, capricious weather is not one of them.
They were not the conditions needed by a 47-year-old with fused discs in his back and a battered right leg literally held together by hardware, but getting by with a little help from his friend was preferable to missing his first Masters cut as a professional.
At least it seemed that way at the time, though making back-to-back double bogeys at the 15th and 16th holes in the soaking, shivering rain had to dull some of the satisfaction. By the time the third round was mercifully stopped at 3:17 p.m., Woods was 6-over par through seven holes and looking as miserable as the weather.
There was a time when making the cut was automatic for Woods, a five-time Masters champion who has said his cuts-made streak (142 in a row on the PGA Tour) is his proudest achievement in the game. It’s different now, though, and making it to the weekend again at Augusta should be a badge of honor.
Rory McIlroy didn’t do it. Bryson DeChambeau didn’t do it. Thomas didn’t do it.
The thing about Woods and Augusta National now is this: It may not last much longer.
Woods himself offered that bit of foreshadowing in his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday when he said, “I don’t know how many more I have left in me.”
Then he added this kicker: “So just to be able to appreciate the time that I have here and cherish the memories…”
Tiger Woods never has been about looking back. He constructed his legend focusing on the moment, seemingly capable of cutting steel with his eyes. He seemed impervious to pain and unaccepting of mediocrity.
Now he winces occasionally when he walks, and the wonder he produces isn’t from the golf he plays but about the future he faces.
Because of age and injury, Woods walks tentatively, finding the smallest slopes where he can, and swings around a back that doesn’t fully bend and a leg that doesn’t fully function.
Physically, how much better can he get?
There is still a nobility to his presence on the course, even if the game that once looked so easy now looks so hard. With each passing tournament, there is a growing acceptance that no matter how hard he works and how hard he tries, what time and trauma have taken away isn’t coming fully back.
Earlier Saturday morning, 65-year-old Sandy Lyle and 64-year-old Larry Mize waved their goodbyes to the Masters, graying past champions gracefully taking their final bows.
At this moment, it’s hard to picture Woods going the distance like they did, not because he doesn’t want to but because he won’t be able to. Walking Augusta National is hard work, and that, more than the shots he’s required to hit, will likely determine how many more Masters Woods can play.
“I wish it could be easier,” Woods said this week.
Before the back problems and before the auto accident in early 2021, it was hard to imagine Woods playing senior golf. Now he talks about being less than three years away from the PGA Tour Champions where he can hop into a cart and play more golf with the guys he knows better than the ones he competes against now.
Maybe it was the weather on Saturday, more familiar to fishermen in the North Atlantic than golfers in April at Augusta, that made the moment feel heavier than it was.
Or maybe it was the silent ticking of time passing, even at Augusta.
Top photo: Despite finishing with two bogeys, Tiger Woods catches a break late in the day and makes the 36-hole cut at the Masters. (Andrew Redington, Getty Images)
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