Woods wins battle to stay in contention

Tiger Woods hits an errant drive on the fith hole during the third round of the Masters.

Tiger Woods hits an errant drive on the fith hole during the third round of the Masters.

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11:26:23 PM ET. 04/17/2014




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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Mark this down: The third round of the 74th Masters will be known as the day Tiger Woods nearly lost control of his emotions.

Mark this down, too: The third round of the 74th Masters will also be known as the day Tiger Woods put himself in position to win his fifth green jacket.

It’s a remarkable dichotomy, but not surprising for a man who hasn’t felt the shivers of competition in five months, yet still remains the world’s most talented golfer.

Woods started to spiral Saturday on the front nine at Augusta. He used four-letter words on more than two occasions to describe how he felt about sliced drives and pulled irons. He began talking to himself under his breath, walking faster from tee to green and staring off into space searching for answers.

It looked like he needed to call time-out and meditate.

Somehow he traversed these rolling hills in 70 strokes, and at the end of a wild day at Augusta National, was four shots behind leader Lee Westwood.

“I fought as hard as I possibly could to get myself back in the ballgame,” Woods said. “To get it where I’m only four back right now was a pretty big accomplishment.”

Early on, it looked like Woods was primed for a vintage performance. His 25-foot uphill birdie putt on the first hole hung for a moment on the edge of the cup before dropping in. It sent the gallery – packed seven deep around the green – into a frenzy and caused Woods to unleash his most demonstrative fist pump of the week. Then, at the par-4 third, he slammed a 20-footer for birdie into the back of the cup, the ball making a left-to-right U-turn of 10 feet before falling in. Woods was at 8 under and just a shot behind Westwood. He had the patrons in the palm of his hand.

But then Woods got frazzled. He pulled his tee shot left into a greenside bunker at the par-3 fourth and made bogey. On the par-3 sixth, his mis-hit iron shot caused him so much grief that he exclaimed, “Tiger Woods, you suck! God (darnit)!” Suddenly, his energy had shifted from positive to pessimistic. He rocketed his putt 10 feet past the hole and three-putted for bogey.

At the par-4 seventh, he set up for a stinger 3-wood off the tee, but tugged it left, yelled an obscenity at himself, then stayed on the tee box for an extra 30 seconds for a self-lesson on how to properly get the club on plane.

By the time he made the turn, Woods was five shots behind Westwood. The deficit grew to seven shots after a three-putt bogey at No. 10.

But then Woods dug deep. He two-putted for birdie at No. 13, carved an approach to 6 feet at No. 14 and made the birdie, then got up-and-down from the back of the 15th green for another birdie. It turned out to be a four-shot swing, as Westwood bogeyed from the front bunker on No. 12.

At No. 17, Woods pushed his drive at the par 4 so far right that it came to rest in the 15th fairway. No foul language this time, just laughter. He would make bogey.

Woods stiffed his approach at No. 18 to 3 feet and made the birdie putt. He took his cap off, flashed a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial, then disappeared into the scorer’s hut.

Final total: Seven birdies, six pars, five bogeys, two three-putts.

Tonight, he may need to tack on a few aspirin, too.

For a man who has vowed to alter his ways both on and off the course, Saturday proved that change does not come overnight.

“Did I (curse)?” Woods said when asked if he had regrets about not toning down his outbursts. “If I did, then I’m sorry.

“I’ve played golf long enough where I’ve never had four great rounds in a row,” Woods continued. “One day is always going to be your off day, and on your off day if you can keep it under par, it’s always a good sign.”

Here’s another good sign: Woods locked in an all-out, head-down, love-it-or-hate-it competition mode.

It’s what’s golf has been missing for five months. It’s what golf needs now. It’s what has added to an already magical Masters.

Woods will play in the second-to-last group Sunday with K.J. Choi, whom he was paired with in each of the first three rounds. Only two players since 1990 – Zach Johnson in 2007 and Nick Faldo in 1990 – have won the Masters coming from outside the final pairing.

If Woods is to slip on his fifth green jacket Sunday night, he’ll need to play with emotion, passion and aggression.

Curse words, be damned.

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