AUGUSTA, Ga. – In this golf, the waiting is the hardest part. For you, for me, for Tiger Woods. This man, one of the most dominating and accomplished athletes ever, has been waiting for his knee to heal, his back to heal, his head to heal. He’s been waiting, for 10 years and nine months, to get a 15th major championship. And now, suddenly, it’s Masters Sunday.
And he has a chance.
He’s in the day’s last threesome. He and Tony Finau needed 205 shots to earn their unusual 9:20 Sunday morning tee time. (The forecast is for a warm, humid morning and a stormy afternoon.) Francesco Molinari, who played with Woods when he won the British Open last year, did it in 203.
Hurry up and wait. Every kid who grows up in a military home, as Woods did under the eyes of a retired lieutenant colonel, knows that phrase. Woods made a bogey on the long, par-4 5th, for the third straight day. It was his only bogey of the day en route to a tidy 67. Asked post-round if he gave himself a talking to on his way to the 6th tee, Woods gave a longish nod, as he is wont to do. And then he revealed the short sentence passing through his Army-psychologist-trained brain: “Just be patient.” That’s been his m.o. for his 40-year golf career. You wait, you wait, you wait. You pick your spots. That’s what Jack Nicklaus did. What Ted Williams did. What Michael Jordan did. What Warren Buffet does.
Woods, who turned 43 last Dec. 30, was paired with Ian Poulter of England on Saturday. Poulter played a beautiful round, but his 68 required more work than Tiger’s did. Woods was standing on the tee of the par-5 13th, waiting for Poulter to put the finishing touches on his bogey on 12. Woods hit a poor, pulled tee shot there, but the next three shots were a study in execution – and patience – and he walked off with a birdie he absolutely had to have.
After a par on 14, Woods drilled his tee shot on the par-5 15th. He had to be so amped at that moment. He was in contention at the tournament he has won four times, a tournament that has defined his greatness to millions of fans across the world since he won it by 12 shots as a slender golfing prodigy at the age of 21. What you can’t do on 15 is be short, what with that little pond in front of the green. What you can do is be long, at least you could late on Saturday, when the fairway grass was kind of long and the turf underneath it kind of mushy. Woods went long. Poulter hit the green in two.
As you think about the long run-it-out downhill chip Woods played toward the 15th hole – and toward the water! – let’s take a break in the action to remind you of this nightmare from circa 2015: Tiger Woods had the worse cases of chip-yips in the Golf Channel Era (which resulted in many more shots being recorded for posterity than ever before). The shot he hit was a study in purity, and it finished within three feet of the hole.
The demands of that chip are more than we could know, and this is why. For the tee shot, your heart is racing (you is Tiger Woods) and you’re hitting it as hard as you can. Second shot, the iron to the green, requires something with a little more art to it, and a more controlled kind of oomph. The third shot, the chip, requires a certain stillness and calm that money cannot buy. He played it with his feet practically touching. Oh, man.
And then there was nothing to do but mark and wait. Just be patient. No two-putt is easy at Augusta National and it took Poulter a fortnight for him to hit a poor lag and a good second putt for his birdie. What could Woods do? You’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for the chance to get to 10 under par and now you have to wait some more and there is no such thing as a gimme at Augusta National. So you just stand there, not moving, just breathing, thinking about nothing and everything. He made that one to get to 10 under. On 16, it was almost the same situation. Woods close, Poulter not. Woods waiting, because there is nothing else you can do, while Poulter made a workingman’s par. Then came Tiger’s final birdie of the day. After pars on 17 and 18, his day was done. Three warm days, three solid cards, and then some: 70, 68, 67.
You could say it’s not important, it’s just golf, he’s a father of two and a multi-millionaire and an athletic icon no matter what he does on Sunday or in any other tournament for the rest of his life. That would be both true and not. Because golf is a singular and weird sport, with that ball sitting there in all it’s still loneliness, and you, the golfer – you or me or Tiger Woods his own self – are going to do something with that ball. So it becomes more than golf, more than sport. It becomes mind over matter. “Yoga for Republicans,” as the writer Michael Murphy said so artfully years ago, except that it’s not true, the party part of it. Woods can count both Barack Obama and Donald Trump among his golf partners in recent months.
Tiger contended at the British Open last July in Scotland, his kids on the sidelines. He looked like he was in pain when that one was over. Tiger contended at the PGA Championship in St. Louis last August. He looked happy when that was over. Tiger’s smile coming off the 18th green here on Friday, applause flooding his ears, was the most broad, heartfelt smile you might have seen from him ever. It was both boyish and not.
Woods is a middle-aged man with a life that has unfolded in public, much of it great, some of it deeply painful, and the golf, this golf he plays, it’s part of something that we can all relate to, a second chance and what we do with it. As an athlete, he has nothing to prove to anybody. That goes without saying. But as a man, he can prove something to us and to himself. He can inspire us as he pushes himself. It was 22 years ago that he won here, in the first major championship of his pro career. It was two years ago, here, that he told a friend he might never be able to play tournament golf again. It was one year and 11 months ago that he was arrested in the middle of the night. You have to know that to really understand what it is that he is trying to do on Sunday, to win his 15th major and his first in 10 years and nine months.
This weather has been a gift to him. It has felt much more like a Midwestern U.S. Open than Augusta in spring. He looked tired when his workday was over on Saturday.
“Just be patient, let the round build — we’ve got a long way to go,” Woods told himself on his way to 6, on his way to 2019, on his way to 2000, to ’97, to whenever. Golf takes patience. That’s why it’s a niche sport.
It takes him hours to get ready for a tournament round. We don’t know it all. In the past, he has made references to pre-round ice baths and heat treatments, to lifting and stretching, to physios, to chefs, to pre-round chats with his kids. He left campus at 6:40 p.m. Saturday night, Molinari still on the course. The Italian is tough and good and modest. He expresses nothing and everything. He’s relentless and gentlemanly. He has a two shot-lead on Tony Finau, looking for his first major, and Woods, looking for his 15th. The chances of Woods finishing ahead of Molinari are slim, but of course it could happen. The chances of him winning are slim, except one can say this, too: He already has.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]