AUGUSTA, Ga. — Now what?
What are we to make of Tiger Woods, who began to fall apart but righted himself Saturday to card a 70 (eight under total) and get within four of Lee Westwood's lead at the Masters?
He's the best ever? The worst ever? One part Hugh Hefner, two parts Jack Nicklaus, with a liberal sprinkling of Nike and Earl Woods?
The rust of a nearly five-month layoff finally showed up throughout Tiger's bag in the third round. He missed those six-foot putts he always makes, fought his swing, and made four bogeys in seven holes. It didn't look like Woods.
"I was fighting it all day," he said. "My warm-up wasn't very good. I really struggled with the pace of the greens and was fighting my swing."
Still, he was encouraged. He shrugged off three three-putts, roared back with birdies on 13, 14, 15 and 18, and saved his round. After falling seven behind early in the back nine, he's only four back. Number of players in between him and Westwood: one, Phil Mickelson (11 under).
You think they know he's back there?
Woods has never come from behind to win a major, but maybe that's a good thing. His whole life has been full of firsts lately. At the last major, the PGA Championship last August, he took a two-shot lead into the final round, only to watch then-lightly regarded Y.E. Yang vaporize it and win by three.
"Something's wrong with Tiger," we said then. "We're going to find out he was playing on two blown-out knees."
As it turned out, Woods was living a life that was about to boil over spectacularly, compelling all of us to come into his kitchen for a good long look. He was also playing on a right Achilles tendon that kept falling apart like overcooked pasta, he revealed on Monday.
Still, the scorecard for the week so far looks like this: Tiger's golf game, 1; Tiger's mating games, 1/4. (The Russian judge awards an eighth of a point apiece for topical, timely airplane banners. He's crass like that.)
Woods could still win this thing. He got his very bad round out of his system and walked away needing only a special round Sunday, not a tourniquet.
Predictions were varied as he plotted his return here. It said here that Woods would make the cut but not contend in this Masters. What can I say? One out of two isn't bad.
"We've made a career out of underestimating what Tiger Woods can do," Geoff Ogilvy said after shooting a three-under 69 Saturday, for a one-under total. Woods had birdied two of his first three holes and was just a shot off Westwood's lead.
"It's very, very, very impressive," Ogilvy continued. "But it's not surprising."
Everything that has happened this week has only reinforced how little we know about Woods, and what he's capable of. (Come to think of it, that's pretty much been the subtext of the last five months.) And other than four bogeys in the middle of his round Saturday, and one on 17, everything has gone Tiger's way.
Start with the press conference. There were 200 reporters and one Tiger. He would be asked to explain his role in multiple scandals and potential scandals — his trysts, his association with a sketchy Canadian doctor, his prescription drug use. And this time there would be no cozy five-minute time limit.
But the multiple misdeeds and bad choices turned into an odd sort of advantage for Woods, who never had to go too deep on any one topic and cleverly sidestepped the questions he didn't feel like answering. When he slipped out the back door unscathed after 34 minutes, it was like watching a piece of bacon politely excuse itself from a date with a Labrador retriever.
Then there was the ad, which was aired for less than 24 hours but was still a brazen bit of business by Nike. Tiger stands looking into the camera while we hear the voice of his deceased father, Earl, droning on about making choices in life and learning things. It was all meant to signify something deep and meaningful, even though for all anyone knows Earl could have been talking about the time his naive son ordered the chicken instead of the lamb. The whole spiel sounded like something out of a nursing home poetry jam.
The ad was almost unanimously panned as a creepy, cynical play. But it generated a lot of talk, which as Masters fan and Nike majordomo Phil Knight pointed out on Friday, is the whole point.
Advantage Nike, and Woods.
Even the airplane-banner commentary turned Tiger's way when the FAA grounded the plane on Friday for, no joke, a defective seatbelt.
The most extraordinary thing about this week is that it has been so ordinary: Tiger and Phil hogging most of the air time, Arnie and Jack and Gary hamming it up in the par-3 tournament, Arnie and Jack hitting the ceremonial opening tee shots in the morning dew. It's all by design. In the par-3 contest on Wednesday, Graeme McDowell aced the 9th hole, and after celebrating, encouraged his caddie to have a go. But a green jacket quickly thwarted the attempted frivolity. The fans booed.
Caddies may slap it around with impunity at the Players Championship, but not at Augusta National, home of the Masters Presented by OCD. Woods could not have picked a more assiduously regulated environment for his return.
There have been no porn stars on the premises, as far as I know, unless some of these green jackets have a past I haven't heard about. Nor have there been many carnival acts on Washington and Berckmans Roads, aside from the odd sign-carrying evangelist. Of course it's early yet. Even Joslyn James must know that the Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday.
Not everything Tiger has done has worked out. There was a rumor that he was going to play the par-3 tournament, but he did not. He should have. It would have been a masterstroke of PR, but in a good way, proving he was serious about coming down from his lofty perch.
Still, Woods has done more than just say the right things. He has made eye contact with his fans. He has tipped his cap. He has resisted the odd impulse to tomahawk his club into the turf. And when he blocked his drive on 17 Saturday and the ball headed for the Augusta airport, he laughed.
Okay, so he slipped a bit after he tugged his tee shot on six: "Tiger Woods, you suck! G__ dammit!"
Better to think of the Woods from Friday, when he walked to the edge of the gallery on his way to the third tee to accept a note from a young girl perched on her dad's shoulders. (See the picture at right.) When was the last time Woods got anywhere near the gallery unless he was looking for his tee shot? He flashed a big, toothy, honest smile.
What are we to make of Tiger Woods, who is tied for third place as he eyes his fifth Masters title and 15th major championship? I don't know, but no matter how the golf turns out, I'm cheering for the guy in that picture.