A flock of Southern belles was waiting behind the Augusta National pro shop last Saturday, all gussied up and giggly about the evening to come.
The women made small talk as the golfers in the 76th Masters ambled by in various states of distress. Sergio García walked past with his newest love interest, recuperating after a 75 that sapped his spirit to fight. The engaged Jason Dufner arrived next, his eyes vacant after shooting what would be the first of weekend 75s.
At a few minutes past seven, the sound of oncoming metal spikes tore through the bucolic scene. Rory McIlroy, fresh off a third-round 77 that basically eliminated him from contention, wheeled around the corner, ignored the phalanx of sundresses and made a sharp right turn toward the parking lot.
"Oh my God, it's Rory!" one of the women shrieked as McIlroy planted himself on the seat of an Augusta National golf cart.
As the women began squealing, McIlroy's father, Gerry, broke into a wide grin at his son's latest Beatles moment, even if his mood was dour. McIlroy ignored the commotion. He sat stone-faced, staring straight-ahead.
The week had promised so much. The Masters was to officially launch the intergalactic rivalry between McIlroy and Tiger Woods on the game's grandest stage, and there would be no going back. Each had won a tournament in March in impressive fashion. Each had pronounced his game fit. Each said he was ready to win, then both spent the weekend flailing about in the B flight, out on Sunday almost three hours ahead of the leaders.
When Woods arrived at the 1st tee on Thursday, fresh off a five-shot dusting at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks earlier, the anticipation was thick. Patrons filled the clubhouse veranda, the teeing ground and both sides of the fairway. Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion, stood beneath the large oak tree to watch, as did a handful of Augusta National members in green jackets and dark shades. Something special was about to happen. This would be the start of the coronation.
Woods lashed a screaming hook into the trees, scattering fans and sending a murmur through the gallery. The ball came to rest near the 9th fairway. On the par-5 2nd Woods sniped another drive into the trees and this time had to take a penalty drop. Though he scrambled for par at both holes, the pattern had been set: Woods leaned on his short game to rescue his foundering ball striking.
After Woods opened with 72, his agent, Mark Steinberg, lingered beneath the oak tree. It was suggested to Steinberg that his client probably should have shot 76. "That's being generous," he said.
Woods described a feeling of being caught between the instruction of his former coach, Hank Haney, and his current coach, Sean Foley. "Hank backswing, new downswing," Woods said. Whatever the diagnosis, he was simply not Masters-ready.
As Woods uncorked more crooked shots on Friday, his mood darkened. He cursed into TV microphones for all the world to hear and drop-kicked a nine-iron after a shoved tee shot on the par-3 16th. (He later apologized.) After the round Woods went to Augusta National's massive practice area, hitting balls even as an employee removed the wooden tee markers from the ground. It was fruitless as Woods closed the tournament 75-72-74, playing the par-5s so poorly it was as if he had never seen them before. (For the week he finished one under on the holes he had played in 125 under par in his previous 15 visits to Augusta National as a pro.)
After three Masters victories in his first six years on Tour, Woods has won a lone green jacket in the last 10 tournaments. His Masters résumé is fraying in front of the watching world. A string of course changes since 2002 -- the new pines, the longer holes, the tighter driving areas -- have slowly eroded his advantage. If Augusta National is not wholly Tiger-proofed, it is certainly far less Tiger-friendly. The course that was supposed to be Woods's conveyer belt to 19 majors no longer exists.
"I get out there," Woods said of his swing on Sunday, "and I don't trust it at all."
Woods's struggles were a stark reminder that the gulf between Tour events and majors remains wide and turbulent. In June, at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Woods will mark the fourth anniversary of his last major win, prime playing years that he will never get back. And at a not-so-young 36, he can't help but hear the ticking clock.
McIlroy is not too young to understand that opportunities must be seized. One shot out of the lead at the halfway point and paired with García on Saturday, McIlroy seemed distracted by the Spaniard's negative mojo in majors.
After the pair birdied the par-3 12th -- the first birdie of the day for each -- Garcia welcomed McIlroy with a hug. It was sappy, more appropriate in a Wednesday pro-am. Both men were resigned to their fates.
Greg Norman and Ernie Els spent their best years being deflated by failure at the Masters, only to press ever harder for a victory that never came. McIlroy has now experienced the feeling twice. Last year he blew a four-shot lead in the final round with a closing 43. This year he went out in 42 on Saturday.
"That would have added up to 85," McIlroy said. "Seems like every year I come here, I throw a bad nine holes out there."
That's a trend to shake soon and to shake young, lest McIlroy's pursuit of a green jacket become a long and unfulfilled quest.