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Tiger makes move at Masters, but, oh, what might have been

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods gave the Masters patrons a reason to roar Saturday on the front nine at Augusta National. He birdied four of his first eight holes en route to a 4-under 68 in the third round. But, oh, what it could’ve been if Woods had converted a few more opportunities.

“Oh, man, it could have been something seriously low today. I had it really going,” Woods said. “If I made a couple more putts, the score realistically should have been 6 or 7 (under) today.”

The undercard to the Jordan Spieth Show was a heavyweight matchup featuring Woods paired with Sergio Garcia. There is no love lost between these two, and the mood for Saturday’s pairing was set early by Garcia. In their first pairing since the third round of the 2013 BMW Championship, Garcia took to Twitter to defuse any potential tension.

“It was gonna happen at some point sooner or later!” Garcia wrote. “Paired with @TigerWoods tomorrow but don’t you worry guys, I’m sure we’ll both be fine.”

Leave it to Garcia to poke the sleeping Tiger. Woods showed early that his return to form in shooting 69 on Friday was no fluke. At the par-5 second hole Saturday, he clipped his pitch perfectly for his third shot, to 6 feet below the hole, and made birdie. One hole later, he tossed a soft pitch from 68 yards high in the air, and it flirted with dropping for a deuce. When Woods tapped in for birdie, his name returned to the large white scoreboards throughout the course for the first time.

“To imagine where Tiger Woods went to with his short game from Waste Management to here, I don’t think any of us could have taken that leap,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said. “It is incredible and amazing to watch.”

Then Woods started throwing darts, first at the fourth, knocking his tee shot from 176 yards to 6 inches. Woods tapped in and strode to the fifth tee, leaving Garcia to finish the hole alone. Woods went flag hunting at the sixth, sticking it to 4 feet. But just when it seemed like the patrons were ready to erupt, Woods fanned the putt, and his putter let him down at No. 7, too.

“Stuffed it at six, missed it. Stuffed it at seven, missed it,” Woods said.

How good was Woods on the front? He hit the first eight greens in regulation, tacking on his fourth birdie of the day at the eighth. He termed the par at the ninth “Pretty sweet” after he had tugged his tee shot and overshot the green. His downhill chip stopped 10 feet past the hole. Woods canned it and celebrated with a fist pump.

He was out in 32, three better than Garcia, and 6 under for the tournament. All that good work seemed for naught when Woods duck-hooked his tee shot at 13. It flew 176 yards, left of Rae’s Creek, and settled into pine straw.

“That’s my old body pattern for a draw with my new release pattern,” Woods said, “and they don’t work.”

Woods was fortunate to have a shot, hitting a rope hook back into the middle of the fairway. From 174 yards, he planted a 7-iron 15 feet from the hole, and benefited from seeing Garcia play first along a similar line before standing over his birdie try.

“I saw how much it broke at the end, so I gave it about an inch-and-a-half more break after watching his putt come up there and poured it in,” Woods said.

He broke into celebration with a right-handed roundhouse, drawing a roar that rattled in the pine trees and signaled his return to the first page of the leaderboard. He moved to 7 under, making the type of advance on golf’s Moving Day that sent the patrons into a frenzy.

Woods later said he set a goal of getting as close as he could to 10 under. But his rally stalled at No. 14 when he made his first bogey in 26 holes. A two-putt birdie at 15 righted the ship – he birdied all four par 5s on the day – but it turned out to be his last. At 17, he hit his approach to 12 feet. He took a long look at the leaderboard. At the time, it showed Spieth was minus-15, Phil Mickelson and Charley Hoffman at minus-10 and Dustin Johnson at minus-8.

He and everyone watching knew he needed this putt. As he bent down and cupped his cap to read the break, a patron said, “C’mon, Tiger,” but the putt slid by on the left, and he made matters worse with a bogey at the last.

For the 11th consecutive head-to-head meeting, Woods tied or beat Garcia, who shot 71. There wasn’t much chatter between the two, though Garcia noted they spoke about the loss of the Eisenhower Tree while walking up 17.

“I thought we were both very good,” Garcia said. “It was the way it should be.”

When asked about how Woods played, Garcia noted that Woods’ card wasn’t exactly clean. “He made two or three questionable shots that he got away with and got a couple good breaks,” Garcia said. “Obviously, he’s more in control of his game, but you can do that on a course you know well, and he loves this place.”

That may be true, but back-to-back rounds in the 60s by Woods – the first time he’s done that at the Masters since 2005 – is impressive after a nine-week absence from competition.

When asked what grade he would give himself so far, he said, “A good one.” Good enough to get Woods into the third-to-last pairing, with Rory McIlroy. Woods may be 10 strokes behind, but he still can imagine a scenario in which if he were to go low on the front – say, a 30, which is what he shot in 2009 when paired with Phil Mickelson – he could be a factor.

“I’m going to have to do something special,” Woods said. “You just never know. You saw what happened in ’96 (to Greg Norman). You saw what happened with Rory in ’11. You never know around this golf course.”

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