AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods had to go down on one knee to play a shot off the pine straw early on at Augusta National Saturday. If he is to have a chance to win a fifth green jacket Sunday at the Masters, he may have to kneel on two.
A prayer. That’s about what Woods’ chances appear to be after another ho-hum, lackluster lap around The National on Saturday, something that has become more the norm than the exception. Make no mistake, Woods fought to the very end, making three birdies in his final six holes to post a respectable number (2-under 70). But he’s a long, long way from home.
At 4-under 212, Woods sits seven shots behind co-leaders Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry. That’s a lot of ground to make up at a place that doesn’t yield the back-nine 30s and 31s it once did.
In fact, only twice in the history of the Masters has a winner come back from seven or more shots behind to win: In 1956, when Jack Burke Jr. made up eight shots, and in ’78, when Gary Player shot 64 to erase a seven-shot deficit. Woods and Burke happen to share a locker in Augusta National’s Champions Locker Room, but the karma may stop there.
Woods has been turning the key to an ignition that simply refuses to turn over, and he can’t get anything started. Barring a Sunday script the likes of which we have yet to see from Woods at a major – that is, coming from behind to win – he will depart down Magnolia Lane whistling that historic Chicago Cubs axiom: Maybe next year.
Believe it or not, we could be looking at a 1-for-7 run for Woods at Augusta National; only once since 2002 has he collected that green blazer he covets so much, that coming in 2005, in a playoff over Chris DiMarco. Unthinkable, isn’t it? Didn’t Jack and Arnie tell us The Kid would win more than 10? This was the place that was going to fill three closets at the Woods household, the major everybody simply abdicated to him in that eight-month span between the PGA Championship and yet another major season.
The past three Aprils in Augusta, Woods has finished T-3, T-2 and 2; it’s enough to pile up some nice crystal and and silver medals and various salvers the Greenjackets bestow among high finishers at this magical place, but he’s far more interested in that Size 42ish garment.
As the exiting Player said so succinctly earlier this week, “When you finish second, only your wife and your dog remember it. And that’s if you’ve got a good wife and a good dog.”
Woods has both (including two dogs, actually), but it’s going to be a long stretch between here and Bethpage Black, site of June’s U.S. Open, where he won in 2002 and once again will be the prohibitive favorite. The turf on the practice tee at Isleworth could be in for a tough spring.
So why hasn’t it happened for Woods at Augusta more than once in seven years? The past couple years, it was his putting. This time around, it seems to be a little bit of everything. Poor driving at times, poor putting at others, some loose iron shots when he has rare opportunities to pounce. He never mounts any kind of momentum. And when he does hit a great shot, even then it guarantees nothing.
Woods was posing after his tee shot at the par-3 sixth, only to watch his ball strike the bottom third of the flagstick, gouge the green and then go trickling off the putting surface altogether.
What did he think of the break? “You don’t want to know my thoughts,” he said.
We didn’t need to ask. The scene much summed up his week.
“Frustrating,” he would term it. Said Woods, “I didn’t hit the ball as precise as I needed to. ... All week, I’ve been one yard off, two yards off. On (No.) 9 today, I missed by a yard (with his approach), and the shot finished 40 feet away. I’m frustrated right now.”
And each time he leaves here without a jacket, that frustration only mounts. Of late, every time he looks to get something going at Augusta, he shoots himself in the foot. Last 15 rounds, he’s been in the 60s once. On Saturday, he had the intense look of a prize fighter as he made his way from the practice green onto the first tee. But a poor tee shot into the straw, a second shot short of the green, a dismal chip and three putts later, he was angrily notching a double-bogey 6 on his card.
One hole later, at the feastable par-5 second, he lost another drive into the right-side pine straw, needing to drop to a knee to hit his second shot. (“Eight iron, 12 yards,” he said.) He would settle for par only after ripping a third-shot 3-wood onto the green.
Tiger Woods hitting 3-wood for his third shot on a par 5? Again, unthinkable.
But the second hole is a microcosm of his recent challenges at The National. When he won in 1997, he played the hole 4 under, and when he won in ’05, he played it in 3 under. The past two years, over seven rounds, he has toured the hole in level par.
Woods departed the grounds late Saturday afternoon before the leaders finished, and knew he needed lots of help to have a reasonable Sunday chance. He didn’t get his help, and now starts the final round seven shots back. It’ll take a miracle, one that he has shown no signs of possessing. Not this week, anyway. He’s missing his fastball.
“I’ve still got a shot,” Woods said under the famed majestic oak tree behind The National’s stately clubhouse.
Does he? It sounded good, but for once, the words just didn’t sound very believable. Even for him. He still has 18 holes left, but right now, he seems to have far more questions than answers, and he’s down to a prayer. Even the inspiration of a pairing with rival Phil Mickelson might not be enough, what with nine players ahead of the two.
Unless Cabrera, Perry and Chad Campbell decide to sleep past 2 p.m., mistakenly show up across the fence at Augusta Country Club or have dire days that would bring a smile to Jean Van de Velde, Tiger Woods Airlines will be jetting off for Orlando Sunday night with its principal occupant haven fallen shy of his one and only mission. To win.
That never sits well with Woods. But hey, look on the bright side: There’s always next year.