Rude: Tiger still a work in progress

Tiger Woods punches out from beneath a tree at Augusta's 17th.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods on Saturday did not look like someone who is going to win his fifth Masters title. He didn’t look like it on the scoreboard, where he is seven strokes behind. Or with his short game, which failed him with chipping on the front nine and putting on the back.

The result was a sloppy 74, the worst third round of the top 13 scorers. He began the day tied for third and three back. He ended it tied for ninth and seven behind a 21-year-old, Rory McIlroy, who has a four-shot lead and appears on cruise control.

Woods’ 2-over-par effort was surprising considering his nine-birdie 66 on Friday. But the retreat also was the continuation of inconsistency by someone who hasn’t been able to string together two or three good rounds since he last won in 2009.

He hasn’t been able to validate great rounds with strong performances the next day. That’s so unlike the Woods of old, the pre-scandal dominator, the man who has won 14 majors and 71 PGA Tour titles.

In the midst of a swing overhaul since July, he’s still a work in progress, still not completely dialed in, still someone who shows flashes of his former brilliance but not yet sustained excellence.

Tiger Woods didn’t used to be a mixed bag, but he is at the moment. You don’t get many better samples of evidence than the last two days. A 66, then a 74, his first over-par round here since the second round in 2007.

Just when you think his swing is on the verge of being second nature, he hits a block flare as he did on No. 4, short and right, similar to the one he rinsed in a first-round loss at the WGC-Accenture Match Play. Or he pulls a drive like the one on 17 that, of all things, hit the Eisenhower tree.

I didn’t even know the Eisenhower tree was in play for Woods. Short hitters, yes. Woods, no. But he hit it Saturday and the ball fell straight down, onto the pine straw, from where he had to squat and make a flat swing en route to a scrambling par.

When did he start imitating an old president as a golfer? Is the Eisenhower tree even in Steve Williams’ yardage book?

Woods just didn’t have it Saturday, a day that began with bad luck when his opening drive ended up in a divot hole.

“A tough start,” he said.

When he made the turn four strokes back, I had the strong sense that he wasn’t going to win his first Masters title since 2005 this week. His chipping was poor on the front, and those who have trouble chipping don’t win green jackets.

He chipped to 9 feet from the hole on No. 1, and missed. He chipped 15 feet by from just behind the green at No. 2, and missed. He chipped about 25 feet past the hole at the fourth. And just off the back of the green, 45 feet from the hole, he chipped 25 feet by at the eighth.

Curiously, Woods changed his chipping and putting as well as his swing, to keep the motions similar. It shows in the lack of sharpness at times.

His putting sprung a leak after the eighth. He missed an 8-foot birdie putt at the ninth and then three-putted twice in five holes, at Nos. 12 and 15. He ended the day by missing a 5-foot par putt.

“I made nothing,” he said afterward. “I hit a lot of beautiful putts that did not go in. I had two three-putts and didn’t make anything. And I had a couple of other unforced errors (mentioning Nos. 2 and 8).”

He needs a collapse from McIlroy and something resembling his best Augusta National round (65) and some help from others in order to win. He never won a major from behind when he was a terminator, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to start now while in transition.

Yet, he said he still thinks he can win.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve got to put together a good round and see what happens.”

As one of the best competitors in sports history, he has to believe that. But we don’t have to believe him.

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