AUGUSTA, Ga. – There are two sides to every story, except when Tiger Woods is involved. Then there are three. There are the Tiger optimists, the Tiger pessimists, and Tiger himself.
For the pessimists, the story of Woods’ first Masters round is pretty simple.
Woods, who is 39, shot 73.
Jordan Spieth, who is 21, shot 64.
Tom Watson, who is 65 and nearing the end of the extended, multi-year farewell tour that Augusta National so graciously provides, shot 71.
So that’s it, the whole story. Tiger got beat by the old and the young, and if his name wasn’t Tiger Woods, the cluster of reporters waiting for him after he signed his scorecard would have been one guy from his hometown paper.
The optimists see it differently. They say that his 73 was pretty good for a guy who hadn’t played in two months, since declaring that his “play, and scores, are not acceptable for tournament golf.” He shot a 73 and 82 at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, then withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, which is just about his favorite course on the planet.
And the optimists will also point out that, while he appeared to have the chipping yips two months ago, he has apparently gotten rid of them.
On the 11th hole, he hit an aggressive pitch close to the pin. On the par-3 12th, after his tee shot rolled back into Rae’s Creek, he faced the kind of halfway-to-hell wedge that has taken years off golfers’ lives. Hit it too soft, and you’re back in the creek. Hit it too hard, and you’re in the trap behind the green, and then you might end up in the creek. Woods hit his close to the pin and saved bogey.
“It’s my strength again,” Woods said of his short game. “That’s why I busted my butt. That’s why I took some time off. That’s why I hit thousands upon thousands of shots, to make sure it’s back to being my strength. And it is.”
This was certainly true Thursday, by any objective measure. We didn’t know if Tiger would skull his first chip into the gallery, or flub it two feet. But his chipping was very good, and he chipped like he knew it would be very good. He was aggressive. As he said, “I tried to hole most of them.”
And this brings us to the third view of Tiger Woods: Tiger’s. He is an optimist, of course, but publicly, he takes it to another level. He said his goal remains winning. He said, “I’m still in it. I’m only nine back. We’ve got a long way to go.” He blamed his missed putts on misjudging the pace of the greens, as he often does. He smiled and seemed relaxed.
Add it all up, and you can see his mind working: Figure out the speed of the greens; don’t try the wrong shot again on No. 9; stay aggressive with the short game, which is his “strength” … and that could all add up to a 66 Friday, and he’ll be back in contention, and who counts out Tiger Woods on the weekend at Augusta?
Is he right? Even optimists are skeptical. It seems like a stretch for anybody to take two months off because his game is not fit for the Tour, then win his first major in seven years. Even by the standards that Woods set early in his career, that would be unbelievable.
But … well, maybe this is just me, but I think you have to respect Tiger for believing that. How many guys get the yips and take them to their grave? How many players are riddled with self-doubt even when they are playing well? How many miss a few putts Thursday and let it affect them on Friday?
This was why Woods was such a spectacular player for so long. It wasn’t just his physical gifts. His brain could convince his body it could hit any shot he wanted at any time. He always said he believed he could win, because why would he say anything else?
That’s how he won 14 majors. That’s how he was able to show up at Augusta after two months in golf-game rehab and look like he belonged in the field. I don’t know what happens next. But you can’t fault him for believing it will be something good.