AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is a new revelation to this longtime Tiger Tracker that the golfer formerly known as The Chosen One gets nervous on first tees, particularly at Augusta National. But it becomes obvious, once you start thinking about the many wayward shots he hits after superb warm-up sessions and the simple announcement, "Fore, please, Tiger Woods now driving."
On Friday afternoon, just short of 1:30, Augusta Center-of-the-World Time, the four-time Masters champion made eight practice swings with a driver, heard that understated call to action and smashed an uphill (but wind-aided) drive that left him with a little wedge in. Your Tiger Tracker had visions of a 4-4-3 start and 67. Game on!
Game off. Terrible pull-shot second. Poor pitch. Two-putt bogey. Just the start he, and this game too desperate for his return to prominence, did not need. Over the next 17 holes and five and a half hours, he played shots that made his Florida swing seem like a distant memory. Taking an unplayable on 5 after a wildly offline second shot. (Double bogey there.) In the creek on the par-3 12th with a weak shoved iron that was a weird Groundhog Day replay of the weak shoved iron he hit in the creek on Thursday. Another bogey there.
There were long TW exhales, and more than once he turned his back to wayward shots, invoking the golfer's right to see no evil, which you can do when you have a caddie and 10,000 spectators who find your ball.
You know that move where Tiger nails the tee shot and grabs his peg before the ball reaches its apex? If it happened on Friday, your Tiger Tracker doesn’t know about it. Coming off 14, he was talking — muttering, more precisely — to himself until he was in earshot of his caddie, Joe LaCava.
As the fans hiked up the hill at the conclusion of the Par 3 Contest early Wednesday night, there was (it seemed) more pre-game excitement for this Masters than any other in recent memory. The prospect of the great man winning a major for the first time since 2008 accounted for roughly 85 percent of the frothing, by one unscientific account.
Wednesday night, as the LPGA star Stacy Lewis accepted the Ben Hogan Award from the Golf Writers Association of America, for overcoming a disability to achieve excellence in the game, it was impossible (at least for this Tiger Tracker) not to think about the possibility of Woods standing there in one year’s time, for his triumphant return from the operating table. As he has said more than once this year, “I’m fused.”
Woods himself was trying to calm the world down before the tournament began, and he evoked Hogan’s name, and his own history, in doing so. He was asked where a win in the 2018 Masters would rank in the history of sporting comebacks.
Woods, with keen insight, said, "Well, I have four rounds to play, so let's just kind of slow down. I've had anticipation like this before. If you remember the buildup was from the PGA of 2000 to the Masters of 2001, nine months of building up, and what that tournament would mean. And it's the same thing. I've got to go play and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully I end up on top. But I’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then.
"As far as greatest comebacks, I think that one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport is from the gentleman who won here, Mr. Hogan. I mean, he got hit by a bus and came back and won major championships. The pain he had to endure, the things he had to do just to play, the wrapping of the leg, all the hot tubs, how hard it was for him to walk. And he ended up walking 36 holes and winning a U.S. Open. That's one of the greatest comebacks there is, and it happens to be in our sport."
It's thrilling — or this Tiger Tracker thinks it is — when you see the depth of Tiger's thinking on display. He doesn't go there often. He’s not like Phil Mickelson, or most people, really. He doesn't really care whether you think he’s smart or not. He seldom tries to show off how much he knows and understands in his interviews. When it happens, it’s natural, unforced.
At some point — after his good play in his three Sunshine State events — Las Vegas odds-makers declared Woods to be the favorite at this year's Masters. It was insane. Here are nine players who are better at golf than Tiger right now:
1. Justin Thomas
2. Bubba Watson
3. Rory McIlory
4. Jordan Spieth
5. Dustin Johnson
6. Phil Mickelson
7. Hideki Matsuyama
8. Jon Rahm.
9. Justin Rose
Your Tiger Tracker is not trying to freak you out here, but the battle for 10th includes Alex Noren, Tommy Fleetwood, Marc Leishman, among a two dozen other names that maybe did not spring to mind when you were filling out your office pool. Paul Casey. Paul Casey? Paul Casey. Is Woods in the top-100? Yes. Will he be on the Ryder Cup team in the fall? Yes. Is he better at golf than Daniel Berger right now? The jury is deliberating.
Woods played the Friday and Saturday rounds with two of the contenders-for-10th, Leishman, your 36-hole leader and Fleetwood, who looks like a rock star and has a winning ease in all he does. Woods was trying to keep up with them, score-wise, for their two long days together, in rounds that were insanely slow. Fleetwood, after two rounds of even-par 72, said at the end of it, “If you’re not going to learn off Tiger Woods, don’t bother trying.” If you’re not paying attention to Tommy Fleetwood, you’re in for some joy. It’s the way he plays, the way he looks, the way he talks. It’s all good.
Your Tiger Tracker had a freak out of his own when Woods made a vintage, garden-variety two-putt birdie on 15. Given some of the waywardness and the downbeat gazes from the man, you might have thought he was shooting a million. In fact, with that birdie on 15, he was only two over for the day and three over for the tournament. His swing on the tee of the par-3 16th was rock-solid and with the ball in the air it looked good.
But it was half a club too much and his odd three-putt bogey, to go to four over for the tournament, raised the prospect off him missing the cut, which looked to be five over, the score Woods’s Tuesday practice partner, Mr. Mickelson, was sitting on. A bogey-bogey finish could not only end Woods’s week, but his year. The last two holes are bad driving holes from Woods.
Thankfully, he made a proud par-par finish. Woods has said he cannot practice anything like he used to play. At 42, he’s surely more aware that his future is not his past. He looks super-intense on the course. He always has, but the line between intensity and desperation is a fine one.
He came off the 18th green on Friday at four over par (the same score as Bernhard Langer) and to a standing ovation, which he acknowledged with the modest head nods we’ve seen for many years. He carried his scorecard in his hand as he approached the scorer’s room like he couldn’t wait to unload it and low-fived his nail-chewing agent, Mark Steinberg.
A group of 30 or more Tiger Trackers gathered around him — 148 (73-75) be damned — and he gamely answered questions for a few minutes or so. He talked about shooting two mid-60s scores on the weekend and getting back in the event, but that seems like a fantasy and he likely knows it. He is the high priest of understanding the value of baby steps. No part of his game is particularly sharp right now, in his return to major-championship golf. It could be a hundred things and nerves and desire, too much desire, is surely part of it. He knows it.
Somebody offered the day’s swirling winds as an excuse. Woods wasn’t biting.
"It was me," he said. "I didn't hit the ball very good."
Somebody offered a flier lie to explain the second shot on 5. Woods wasn't biting.
"I hit a crap shot," he said. "It was like the same wedge shot I hit on one. Same shot with a longer club."
As for the tee shot on 12, "Stuck in the ground again, trying to hit a flat cut."
He's starting to sound like Hogan.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.