AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The pins were tucked and the wind was swirling, and coming from a direction the players rarely see. Slow play forced 20-minute waits on the par-3 fourth tee and compelled officials to pin a one-stroke penalty on 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan. Dustin Johnson walked off the 13th tee with the lead, but he played the last four holes in five over par and signed for a 76, reenacting “Sinkhole swallows golfer.”
Tiger Woods hung in, hung in, made three front-nine birdies, and hung in some more. And then the one happy little slice of calamity we hadn’t seen sunk even him. His approach shot on the par-5 15th hole was too good. It slammed into the flagstick just above the cup and ricocheted back into the pond, turning a likely birdie into a bogey. Woods bogeyed 18 too, and signed for a second-round 71, dropping him to three under par and in a seven-way tie for seventh. That’s three strokes behind leader Jason Day, whose 68 was the low round of the day. “I was pretty pissed,” Woods said of his pin-ball on 15. “I’m looking like I’m making birdie; now I’ve got to really struggle and grind to not lose two shots.”
Woods can still win this thing, without question, but he’s got to get back to being the guy who racked up 14 major championship victories by age 32. Where is that guy? When will he be back? This Woods sometimes seems to want it too much, especially on the back nine, where he hasn’t broken par since 2011. That has to drive him crazy, given the (relatively) low-hanging fruit on 13 and 15.
This year was going to be different. Woods is putting better. For the first time in a decade, he’d won three times coming into the Masters. First-round co-leader Marc Leishman, at five under par after a Friday 73, was asked what he thought when he saw Woods climbing the leaderboard and sounded like guys used to sound when they answered that question.
“He’s the best player in the world at the moment, and obviously I’d have to play good to beat him,” Leishman said. “But I think it’s doable.” Pause. “He’ll probably get annoyed now and shoot 62 tomorrow.” Everyone laughed, but now Woods has to reel in Leishman and the five other guys ahead of him on the board.
Friday was one of those days that separates the field -- the kind of day that Woods used to exploit: pins on ledges and edges, some rain in the morning giving way to maddening gusts, a left-to-right breeze that wreaked havoc on the required draw off the tee on 13, and a headwind leading to all manner of wrecks on 15. And here’s the thing: Woods was this close to weathering it all. That’s what he does when he’s winning these things. He rides out the numbing pars and limits the damage of the odd stray shot until he finds that magical hour or two when his game kicks into high gear and he saunters into history.
For most of the day that’s what he was doing. Woods and the 77th Masters seemed to take shape concurrently as the No. 1 player in the world made three birdies in four holes to shoot 33 on the front nine and tie for the lead with Leishman and Fred Couples, who rallied to a second-round 71. Who was going to beat him? Leishman, the affable Aussie who has zero majors and 76 fewer PGA Tour wins than Tiger? Couples, who is 53 and still hot from his last Masters win 21 years ago? Please. Woods was going to pass those guys without even a cursory wave and not look back.
“You can’t put a price tag on confidence,” said Bernhard Langer, a two-time Masters champion who is at two under par. He was noting Woods’s name on the board, well positioned to win his fifth green jacket and his first since 2005, not to mention his first major since the 2008 U.S. Open. Then came the back-nine buzz-kill.
There are two ways to view Woods’s deflating Friday finish, and in fact they are both correct: He got the worst break of the day on 15. Or he wasn’t at all sharp.
Woods hit his tee shot into the back bunker on the par-3 12th hole, but he got up and down to save par. He failed to birdie the par-5 13th hole, which gave up 36 birdies on Friday. He was over the green on 14, but this time he salvaged par. He needed to make another sand save from the left bunker on 16, smote a mighty second shot over the pines to reach the 17th green in regulation (he two-putted for par) and three-putted from no man’s land above the hole at the last for a bogey.
“My score doesn’t indicate how well I played today,” he said, but that’s an arguable point.
There are other good stories on the board. No Australian has won the Masters, but there are Day and Leishman. Day tied for second at the 2011 Masters but slogged through a lousy 2012, the low point coming when he WD’d with an ankle injury at Augusta. Leishman was 13 when he beat his dad to win the club championship. Fellow Aussies Adam Scott and John Senden are lurking at three and two under, respectively.
But this Masters is still about Woods, and whether he can tighten up his game on the weekend to show that he can catch Jack Nicklaus and his 18 career majors. Front-nine Tiger (five under) will win; back-nine Tiger (two over) won’t. It’s that simple.