Woods is close to old self despite coming up short at Augusta

Tiger Woods, Sunday, 2011 Masters
Fred Vuich/SI
Woods showed flashes of his old self on Sunday at the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It's official. Time travel is possible.

And in saying that, I don't mean just that when you walk inside the gates of the Augusta National Golf Club the calendar feels like it automatically resets to 1957 (only with credit cards). Something happened Sunday afternoon. Something big.

Tiger Woods returned. The one who induced roars at Amen Corner that felt as plentiful as ticker-tape in a New York City parade.

He loudly announced his return on this sunny, humid afternoon in Georgia, and it was a beautiful thing to see again, no matter what you think about him. He birdied the second and third holes with vintage precise shots and putts. He stuffed an iron shot close at the sixth for another birdie, and followed it with his fourth of the day on the seventh hole. Then came the timeless, time-travel moment.

After a good drive in the eighth fairway, Woods hammered a hooking 3-wood that scampered onto the green like an Olympic sprinter and rolled to a stop 10 feet from the cup. Then, as he has in all of those other patented Tiger Woods victories, he poured in the putt for eagle. A roar went up from the grandstand, and around the world television viewers felt the hair rise on their arms. The scene looked familiar: a spectacular shot made to look childishly simple, and delivered when it mattered most.

Woods began the day seven shots behind Rory McIlroy, and that eagle drew him within one of the lead. By the time he made the turn, he had a share of that lead. Nine holes, seven shots. It was what Tiger used to do, how he used to make it look so easy.

Tiger is back, but is he all the way back? Is this the start of the Next Tiger Woods Era? Is it the resumption of the previous Tiger Woods Era? Or is it the end of the Tiger Woods Era because he didn't win? The questions are out there. The answers aren't.

I got an e-mail from a friend who watched Tiger's post-round interview with CBS. Woods was no doubt irritated (as is his habit) that he didn't play a perfect final nine. Irritated because he knew deep down that his score of 10 under par wasn't going to be good enough to win a fifth green jacket and a 15th major championship, which would've been sweeter than we could possibly imagine after what he's gone through. My friend asked if Tiger has been taking a-hole lessons. I responded that no, most people think he's already got a black belt in that. He is back to not answering most questions. The interviewer asked him what it was like to play well under pressure for the first time in quite a while. "I hit it good all day. This entire weekend I hit it good. So that was a nice feeling," he said.

Tiger gives up nothing. Never has, never will. He takes losing hard. Second place sucks, he always says. Fourth place really sucks, then, especially when Woods easily could have won if he'd putted like the original Tiger for more than one of the four days.

I mean that. He could have easily won by six or eight strokes. A hot putter and six fewer three-putts and maybe he shoots 20 under par and breaks his own Masters tournament record. You can laugh. You can blame this week's good scoring on receptive greens, warm temperatures and a surprising lack of wind. But Woods was that close to tearing this place apart. Again. He was back to hitting shots that amazed. The second shot at the eighth was one. He hit another at the par-5 15th, when he unleashed a 6-iron from 207 yards. He twirled his club and started walking. He already knew he'd stiffed it. He didn't have to watch. And he was right.

But this is where the questions about Tiger's being back on top get sticky. Woods will get his swing back and rebuild a strong tee-to-green game. He's got too much talent and he works too hard not to. In a pre-tournament press teleconference, former U.S. Open champ Curtis Strange said the same thing. "He'll pop up there again, you know he will," he said. We didn't know it would be this week.

But Tiger's return — the word "comeback" seems a bit premature — is not complete. Generation Next didn't faint in front of him like Generation Past did. Well, except for McIlroy, the smiling, boyish 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, who succumbed to an 80 after three days of soaking in the white-hot spotlight as the Masters leader.

How far Tiger's resurgence goes will depend on his putting. He dominated for so long because he was the best putter of his generation. Like the great Jack Nicklaus, Woods seemed to make every putt he needed to make, every putt that mattered. He probably didn't, but that's what we remember about Tiger. And Jack, too.

The new Sean Foley swing worked well here all week, but the putter is not there yet. After that great approach to the 15th, he had a six-footer for eagle. With the Masters on the line, the old Tiger would've drained that putt every time. This Tiger made a slightly tentative stroke and watched the putt slide sideways and power off the right edge of the cup. He had a two-and-a-half-foot comeback putt that was no gimme, at least not for Tiger 2.0. He made it for birdie, but he needed the eagle.

The same thing happened at the 16th. Tiger landed his iron shot right by the cup on the fly, bringing to mind Nicklaus in '86. It ran out about 10 feet. You knew Woods was going to drain that one and win the Masters. He knew it. His muscle memory said so. But he left the putt too far out on the left — don't tell me the former greatest putter on earth misread it — and missed it. As the putt neared the cup without breaking enough, Tiger took one nervous step back and flipped his putter like a baton, catching it in disappointment.

This is definitely not the same guy who won 14 majors. And we haven't even mentioned the famous par-3 12th hole, where he played the definitive smart shot, hitting to the middle of the green and playing for the two-putt par from 25 feet. Except that he gassed the second putt, missing from barely two feet. It power-lipped out on the left edge and he made bogey.

Even then he still had two par 5s left, and still had enough margin for error. But his second shot at the 13th ran off the left edge of the green and into a swale. A poor chip left him 20 feet away, and he didn't make that birdie either. It's the kind of mistake the old Tiger wouldn't have made.

Still, step back and take a look at Mr. Woods in 2011. He survived a scandal that embarrassed him on a global scale and cost him his marriage. He's recovered from major knee surgery that may have permanently altered his swing. (He grimaced after hitting his approach shot to the 18th; did he tweak his knee or did his ego need an excuse for an inexact shot?) And yet while all that has gone on — including changing coaches — he has finished fourth in two straight Masters. This one, he could've won.

He isn't all the way back, but Tiger is unmistakably on the way back. He's got a lot of Generation Next to deal with. He may plow through them or he may not. It's a new day, a new time. On Friday, when he blistered the course with a fairly easy 66, we got the full package — the old ballstriker and the old masterful putter. He looked impressive. He looked like he was on the prowl. Sunday, we got only half of the package.

Cancel my order for the time machine. I don't want to go back and visit the old Tiger. The game is going to be more challenging for the new Tiger, which means it's going to be more interesting for us. You're not a true champion until you've faced adversity. At this Masters, Tiger showed he's still got something to prove. That's all right. We've got nothing but time.

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