AUGUSTA – Expect the traditional Sunday red shirt. Just not the traditional Sunday drama.
This is when everybody who got drunk off that one victory at Bay Hill (guilty, as charged) has reason to wonder: Will Tiger Woods ever be really great again? Will he ever string together tournament wins like candy beads. Will he ever win another major?
It was Day 3 at the Masters on Saturday. This was the day Woods had to be Woods again. He started the day at 3 over, with a humbling third-round start time of 10:45 a.m., and needed to post a solid red number to make him relevant before the tournament’s final 18 holes. He needed something other than pedestrian, which is what he gave us.
If golf balls were pastel-colored eggs, it looked like an early Easter. There was Woods, hiding his golf ball in pine straw, in sand, behind trees. He made some great shots. But more often than not, all they really accomplished was to make up for the cartoonish ones that could’ve led to his scorecard mutating into a Sandy Lyle starter kit.
“For some reason, I fell into my old patterns again,” he said.
This sounds like a guy running out of answers. He was at the driving range well into Friday evening, and it was no help. So he didn’t plan to go back.
“I’m a little tired,” he said.
So much for the coronation this week.
Woods birdied hole Nos. 3 and 4, but he played the rest of the day at 2 over, leaving him back where he started, and tied for 38th place, which easily would be his worst finish in a tournament he has won four times and finished in the top five 10 times. He struggled on the greens (31 putts — that’s not a misprint). He struggled on the par 5s, his usual Eden holes at Augusta National. (Woods was 133 under in 17 previous Masters on the par 5s, but he’s only 1 under through Saturday.)
Every part of his game has shown flaws at one time or another. That tells you this is as much mental as physical.
On a day when Phil Mickelson scorched the back nine with four birdies and an eagle and Peter Hanson (with an unexpected tournament lead) created wonderful memories for the Hanson’s of Svedala, Sweden, the guy who has been stirring golf’s drink was just a guy. Woods’ 3-over 219 is tied for his worst 54-hole score ever at the Masters. He ranks only 56th in the field in fairways hit (59.5 percent) and 37th in greens (59.3 percent). He missed several makable birdies.
In short, this isn’t some aberration.
Woods is 36 years old. He has had four knee surgeries and an Achilles injury. He is struggling with the concept that things just don’t come easy any more.
It happens to every athlete at some point. The ones who can maintain greatness — or at least very-goodness — despite losing their physical edge usually do so by learning patience, become smarter, controlling emotions. Woods hasn’t mastered those areas. He even felt compelled — or possibly prompted — to spent part of his post-round interview apologizing (sort of) for his second-round antics (a club kick on No. 16 and several verbal cherry bombs).
“Certainly I’m frustrated at times, and I apologize if I offended anybody by that,” he said. “But I’ve hit some bad shots, and it’s certainly frustrating at times. … I hit it right into the bunker. And it didn’t feel good on my toe, either.”
Woods hooked his 13th tee shot Saturday into trees. Then he spiked his driver into the ground, kicking up a chunk of sod. At least this time he didn’t kick the club, which Friday prompted CBS’s Nick Faldo to comment, “I think we can safely say Tiger has lost his game … and his mind.”
Some of the criticism has been excessive. It doesn’t excuse Woods’ behavior, but for one Associated Press columnist to write, “He’s an embarrassment to the sport” is way over the top. It’s not like Woods put a bounty on Rory McIlroy or was “sexting” Joslyn James at Amen Corner. Then again, that would explain the tee shot into the pine trees.
“It was so close to being a really good round of golf,” Woods said.
He didn’t sound convincing. It didn’t look convincing. The guy in the red shirt will have another early tee time.
By Jeff Schultz
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By Jeff Schultz