Augusta — At 10:41 a.m. on April 7, 2011, the green-jacketed starter said, “On the tee, Tiger Woods.” The assembled crowd applauded, and one man yelled “Tiger!” rather softly. (A soft yell? Welcome to Augusta National.) The man himself touched the bill of his white cap and then, looking neither right nor left but only dead ahead, sent a big drive down the first fairway.
For the first time since April 10, 1997, Tiger Woods had teed off in the Masters not being favored to win the thing.
That was the year of Tiger’s first Masters victory, and he arrived here ranked No. 1 in the world every time since. He began the 75th Masters ranked No. 1 no longer — he’s No. 7 — and his recent play has been awful by the standards he set and maintained for more than a decade. He hasn’t won a tournament since he wrecked his Escalade and his marriage the night after Thanksgiving 2009.
That said: He’s still Tiger Woods, winner of four Masters and 14 majors. Which means: Attention must be paid.
That said: Who exactly is Tiger Woods now?
He finished Thursday’s round 1-under. “I’m very pleased,” Woods said. “I’m right there in the ballgame. I’m only six back.” But to watch this Tiger Woods wasn’t to behold the irresistible force of Masters and majors past. He flubbed the par-5s, birdieing only one of the four. On the front nine he hit into two bunkers and found the trees once. And his putting was the kind that leads not to another jacket ceremony but to a 25th-place finish.
Woods: “I had a lot of birdie putts. Hopefully some of them will go in.”
Then: “Most of those putts looked like they should go in.”
The Tiger of yore was a metronome in the way he split fairways and sank putts. This Tiger Woods has the same mannerisms — the trademark pulling of his left sleeve as he moves to address the ball hasn’t changed — but differing results. He’s working with a new swing coach, and the ball is liable to go anywhere. To see him now isn’t to think, “This is the best player in the world,” but to ask: “Didn’t he used to be the best player in the world?”
There’s no physical reason Tiger cannot call back the years and win this tournament and a bunch more. He’s 35. Jack Nicklaus won four majors after his 35th birthday, and four more majors would bring Tiger even with Nicklaus at 18. Let the record show that Phil Mickelson, who entered this Masters as the prohibitive favorite, is 40.
For Woods, age isn’t the barrier. At issue is whether he ever wants to work as hard at golf as he did in his youth. Even after an expensive divorce, he has more money than he could spend in 10 lifetimes. At what point does he say, “I’m OK with being the second-best ever; time now to go do other things”?
That moment, it’s safe to say, hasn’t yet occurred. There was no wistfulness or whimsy in Thursday’s round. The man who was once the world’s greatest golfer tried his best to play great golf. It just didn’t happen. “I’d rather be where Rory is,” Woods said, speaking of co-leader Rory McIlroy, who shot a 65 at age 21. “But there’s a long way to go.”
Even Tiger at his most dominant never won a major on Thursday. The Woods of old would indeed be in good shape with 54 holes left, but there was little about Tiger on Thursday to indicate such a renaissance is at hand. His 71 could have been 68 with better putting, but it might also have been a 73. It wasn’t a flawed work of genius; it was just another round by another guy struggling with his putter.
Afterward someone asked the famous workaholic if he’d head to the putting green for more work. No, Tiger Woods said, and then he smiled. “I was hitting my lines,” he said. “They just weren’t going in.”
By Mark Bradley