2010 Masters: Tiger fades away

Augusta, Ga. | Tiger Woods started Masters Sunday as if the golf gods body-swapped him with a 10-handicap and greased his grips. Starting four strokes off the lead, he didn’t hit a green in regulation until the sixth hole, the equivalent of the Three Tenors sounding like French-manicured fingernails on a chalkboard. The world’s best golfer resembled, of all things, a rusty shell out of an addiction center and sex scandal, someone battling perhaps karma as well as Augusta National.

Woods would resurrect briefly, flashing his familiar brilliance and grit, holing out for eagle 2 at the seventh, going 4 under par on Nos. 7-9, cutting his deficit from seven strokes to three, giving hope a chance, making everyone watch, scratching to the end. But his inconsistency never went away. He was as erratic as the three-putt bogey

from 7 feet that knocked him out of contention at 14 and the anticlimactic, 15-foot eagle on the next.

Bottom line, we’ve never seen Woods mix in so much sloppiness with occasional greatness, never seen him hit as many loose shots in a round, any round, major or minor or exhibition. Much of Sunday, especially to start, he played like someone who hadn’t competed in five months, someone whose family life and image were torn apart by revelation of multiple affairs. He did not perform like a man who had proclaimed on Day 2, “I feel very comfortable.”

We’ve seen him win majors wearing two coats of rust, walking on one leg and, unbeknownst then, living two lives. This time we saw the re-entry version make too many weekend errors, on full swings and around the greens. Oddly, he mixed five bogeys, two eagles and four birdies in a Sunday 69. Heart lifted him to a tie for fourth – an achievement considering all – five strokes behind the swashbuckling of lone rival Phil Mickelson.

Mickelson wins his third jacket as his wife and mother recover from breast cancer. Woods slips after returning from a spectacular free-fall chronicled in saucy detail by tabloid types. The combination is enough juicy fodder for judgers and spiritual speculators to hold a field day, to project a Georgia sequel movie, “Afternoon in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Fact is, Woods’ weekend was spoiled by a “two-way miss” – some misery left, some right, even a couple of popped-up drives Sunday – and four three-putts. He regressed, hitting the ball worse as the week progressed. He sounded like you and me.

“It’s kind of tough to play when you don’t know which way it’s going to go,” Woods said. He added that he “felt very uneasy on every shot.”

The guessing began after what he deemed “terrible” warm-up sessions both days. Sunday’s evidence was more pronounced. For the second Masters in a row, Woods began the fourth round with a wild hook. This time he quickly dropped his driver in disgust if not disbelief. First-tee jitters extend to the top.

“I didn’t have it,” he said.

His playful play-by-play underscored the premise. No. 1: “Quick hook.” No. 2: “Popped up the tee shot.” (He omitted the bunker shot he left in the sand.) No. 3: “Bladed a little pitch (over the green).” No. 4: “Stuck it in the ground.” No. 5: “Low quack hook.”

Woods emphatically refused to blame competitive rust. “No, no, no. Not at all.”

Then what?

“Other than my backswing’s been going bad, my downswing’s going bad, it wasn’t too bad,” he said.

So it’s back to the laboratory. But not the course. He said he’ll take a “little time off and kind of re-evaluate things.” Hence, once more: Schedule, TBA, while personal life reassumes priority.

Woods often played like a caricature of himself at the end of a week in which he and a new Nike commercial featuring his late father’s voice were repeatedly parodied. Late-night television and Internet video feasted, teasing with innuendo. Shows hosted by comics Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Tina Fey lampooned away.

The sky even poked Woods and his pledge to reunite with Buddhism. Before being grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration for needed “minor” repairs, an airplane flew over Augusta National during Round 1 carrying banners that read, “Tiger – Did you mean Bootyism?” and “Sex addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me too!” A humor columnist then wrote, “I didn’t realize (Woods’ absent wife) Elin got her pilot’s license.”

A day earlier, Masters chairman Billy Payne, whose club has contributed $1 million to Woods’ foundation, had ended his annual opening statement with firm words about Woods’ “egregious” conduct on and off course. Payne urged Woods to be a giver and role model, saying, “I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing but would settle for his smile.”

Asked about Payne’s lecture, Woods said, “I was disappointed in myself.”

He had no reason to be dissatisfied by gallery reception. A discouraging word could not be heard. Cheers ranged from thunderous to polite, from 90 to 50 percent of typical past. You’d have thought he was coming out of church, not ridicule and rehab. Little wonder he said the warm support meant more than ever, considering “what’s transpired.”

Perhaps the main difference here was Woods’ countenance. He was friendlier to and more interactive with patrons. He said “thank you” often. One friend called him “sweeter and nicer.” Raymond Floyd said he felt the same kind of sea change in the champions locker room. Woods appeared to carry through the pledge of being more respectful to the game, smiling more and reacting less to bad shots.

That is, until the weekend when his swing acted up. Three Saturday outbursts featuring the word “dammit” were lowlighted by a loud expletive on No. 6, which he said he couldn’t recall but apologized for.

“Did I?” he asked when told of the incident. “If I did, then I’m sorry.”

After popping up a drive Sunday at 13, he screamed, “God, Ti-ger! Jesus Christ! So far stuck behind me!” Old habits can be difficult to mend, particularly when displeased under stress. And, apparently while he is reconnecting with Buddhism, he still moans in Christianity.

As his longtime friend Mark O’Meara said, Woods is on the right track toward vowed transformation but cautioned, “People don’t change overnight.”

For the Masters, his preparation clearly was altered. What with no tune-up tournament, he concentrated on practice. After each of the first two rounds, Woods compared the situation to that of another golf great, Ben Hogan. Following a near-fatal car accident in 1949, Hogan played a limited schedule and focused on range time during long layoffs between starts.

Woods didn’t mention the differences between the two, but satirists could. Hogan found the secret in the dirt; Woods tried to keep his dirt a secret.

Woods has apologized repeatedly for his transgressions, for hurting so many people, for “living a life of lies.” Playing the Masters was another step in recovery, a large one, for his public connection and for his golf.

For the first two rounds, it appeared he hadn’t missed five minutes, much less five months. And his undesirable ending had its advantages, maybe even for him, in a sense.

The Masters outcome shifted golf’s focus from one family to another, from Woods’ to Mickelson’s. You could say the game needed the fresh air.

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