AUGUSTA, Ga. Nobody says the Masters begins on the back nine on Saturday afternoon at Augusta National. Nothing of the kind. All you can do on the back nine on Saturday afternoon at Augusta National is stay in the tournament, or drop out of it altogether. Tiger Woods went out in 37 in the third round. The leader, Rory McIlory, had him by four. Twenty-seven holes left. No time to panic, even though the three-wood to the super-wide fairway at the super-long first hole was a curious play, to say the least. He nailed the three-wood but still made bogey. No way to start, but nothing fatal, either. He headed to the back nine on Saturday still in the thing.
The stakes for Woods are absurdly high. Higher for him than for Rory, who is so young he'll have a hundred more chances. Higher for him than Angel Cabrera. Higher for Tiger than for his third-round playing partner, K.J. Choi, a deeply religious man who played all four rounds with Woods when Tiger made his weird return to tournament golf a year ago on this occasion. Everyone else is trying to win a nice golf tournament, win valuable prizes and a free one-night-a-year dinner for life. Tiger is trying to reclaim his life. The truth, and he may not know it, is that he can't reclaim his old life. The life he had is over. What he can have, of course, is a great second act. You hope he knows that.
A par on 10. A bad tee shot on 11. For all his greatness, for all his length, Woods has never driven the ball like Hogan did, like Nicklaus did, like Norman did. He was never in play as much as those guys. Still, a good recovery shot. A good lag putt. Three feet for par.
Poor Mark Steinberg, Woods's longtime agent, standing with the patrons, biting one fingernail after another. His fortunes rise and fall with his star client's short putting, and this year Tiger's putting has been balky and unreliable, which is, again truly weird, because for about 15 years he made a higher percentage of short putts than anybody not in a Mark Frost book. He made everything. Tiger's mother, Tida, was watching. Some of the Nike guys were watching. All of Amen Corner was watching.
Tiger prowled the little ones, taking nothing for granted. A year ago, when he made his not-so-triumphant T-4 return, he got a bit quick, almost casual, on one or two little ones. Not on Saturday. Back went the putter, a heel-shafted mallet last seen in action four weeks ago at Doral.
The Amen Corner citizenry a good 80 percent male, maybe more had been throaty in its encouragement of Woods. It's very hard to win at Augusta if the fans are not with you. (That makes Seve's first Augusta win, in 1980, even more impressive.) Among the more colorful shoutouts to Tiger on Saturday came from a guy who yelled on 11, "C'mon Tiger, fight for it right here, big boy." Homoerotic? You decide.
The stroke looked perfect, to the degree you can tell from 100 yards away. The putt slid off the left edge. Steiny spat. Tiger tapped in and went to 12.
He looked great. He's almost slim again, much closer to what he was like in 2000 than he was in 2007, when he was so big in the chest that he looked like the Michelin Man's Cablinasian brother. There was no hitch in his walk on Saturday, as there had been at Doral. When he crouched like a catcher to read putts, he looked at ease. He made a beautiful, rhythmic swing on the 12th tee, in still summer-like air. Par there on the slippery little par-3.
His second on the par-5 13th was drop-dead gorgeous and was making a beeline for the hole, but it took a wrong turn off a slope and he was left with maybe 30 feet for eagle.
Two African-American fans were watching Woods closely as he approached the green. All three men were thinking eagle, you know that. "I would love to see him get back on track with a win here," said one of the men, Golden Smith of Charlotte. His friend, Kevin Elliott of Augusta, was feeling good no matter what. "Knocked two off the bucket list today," he said. "Tiger, and the Masters."
The eagle putt was tracking but came up just short. "Two more revelations," another fan said. The fan was looking, of course, for another word revolutions. Enough with the revelations, right? Don't we already know more about the man than we want to?
OK: still a tap-in birdie on 13. Just like the old days. Still in it.
A rope-hook, big-time second shot on 15, landing softly on the fringe and trickling onto the green. Another eagle putt. Second-to-last group. A mellow afternoon. Mosquitoes jumping in the still pond fronting the green. The stage set for a magical moment. Again, just like the old days. Uh-oh. Three putts for par. When did Tiger become ordinary?
A year ago, Phil Knight, the Nike king, was walking the hills here, as part of Tiger's support team, like Tiger needs a support team. A year ago, Saturday Night Live was killing him in a skit. A year ago, he had his own Nike spots. Now he's a supporting player in group ads. A year ago, he was trying to save his marriage. What a difference a year makes. Now he's looking for his putting stroke.
Augusta National is his Disneyworld, a fantasy land that has done way more for him than he has done for it. There's something almost goofy about the place, and there are signs that add to the amusement-park feel. Amen Corner! Concessions! Restrooms! Golf Shop! Gate 9! 14th Green! The exclamation marks are ours, but the signposts are not. Augusta National can make dreams come true. Billy Payne, meet Walt Disney. Woods knows it's a dream factory. He knew it before his romp here in '97. All his trips here since then have reinforced it. It's a strange and great place.
B. Payne and Co. did everything they could to make the course accessible on Saturday. Only a very few of the players could see that, for some reason. You would have thought Woods, like Angel Cabrera and Adam Scott and Bubba Watson, all 67 shooters, would have been one of them. He wasn't. He missed another short one on 18 for his fourth bogey of the day. On a day when he was trying to close the gap he instead went way, way, way the other way. McIlroy went two shots lower and Woods went two shots higher, with a 74. He trails by seven. He did the thing you're not supposed to do on the back nine on Saturday afternoon at Augusta. He shot himself out of it.
When it was over, a reporter asked Woods if he could still win. "Absolutely," he said. He can say whatever he likes, of course, but a more credible answer would have been, "It's very unlikely, but I'm going to try like hell to make something happen." Because, say what you will, Woods has always done that. He really has. It's been said a million times: He's the greatest grinder ever.
He showed it on Saturday. During the round, surely, but more so after it. When the leaders were doing their long-shadow interviews on CBS, Woods was practicing his putting. Steve Williams was off to the side, guarding the bag. Woods started with three balls and then got three more. Before long he was filling up cups with a half-dozen balls at a time, maximum capacity. He knows what we all know, that the bread of redemption is buttered with the flatstick.