AUGUSTA, Ga. — Darkness had settled over the range at Augusta National Golf Club by 8:15 p.m. Friday, and with the course closed the patrons made their way to the exits. Defending champion Charl Schwartzel had packed it in, as had Kelly Kraft, the amateur from SMU. A tall kid in white coveralls picked up the range’s little wood tee markers that look as if they were up-cycled from a good-sized branch.
Caddie Joe LaCava flipped a ball underhanded, and his boss, Tiger Woods, grabbed it out of the air, teed it up, and drove it somewhere out in the darkness. Sean Foley stood behind Woods and in front of him, sometimes bending at the waist as if studying the horizon. Woods paused, and Foley came in to offer a piece of advice. It had been 45 minutes since they got to the range, and more than an hour since Woods had signed for a second-round 75, falling eight shots behind the leaders halfway through the Masters. The sound of lawnmowers filled the cool night air.
“I didn’t quite have it today with my swing,” Woods said. “And unfortunately, I just had to hang in there and be patient, and unfortunately I played the par-3s in three over, and the par-5s not so good, either.”
So the par 4s were good — he had that going for him. And he didn’t have to chit-chat much with his playing partners, Sang-Moon Bae of Korea (71, two over) and Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain (72, three under). The rest? Not so good. Woods missed left, right and often. He couldn’t putt. His muscle memory had amnesia.
Woods’s 75 ended a streak of 11 straight rounds at par-or-better on Tour, and it was just his third over-par effort of 17 total rounds this season. It looked even more jarring against the backdrop of Augusta National, where Woods had shot par or better in 18 of his previous 19 tournament rounds. His late-night range session was less a case of fine-tuning than emergency triage. He’d been awful.
After his last ragged shot, an approach shot that plopped into the bunker well short of the 18th green, Woods brought his club over his head as if to spike it into the ground, but thought better of it. He grabbed hold of each end as if he might snap it in two, but he didn’t do that, either. He twirled it. He made some false casts with it as the light caught a thin sheen of sweat on his face. He climbed into the trap and nearly holed his bunker shot, which settled about a foot from the pin. Par.
If there was one certainty coming into the 2012 Masters it was that Woods had finally found his game, what with his flawless ball-striking in winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill two weeks ago. So how come the club looked like a lit firecracker in his hands Friday? The low point came when Woods fanned his tee shot into the greenside bunker on the easy, par-3 16th hole, dropped his 9-iron and kicked it toward the back of the tee in anger with his right foot.
"Well, I know what to do, it's just a matter of doing it," Woods said of his swing. "That's the frustrating part because I'm still creeping into my old tendencies. I've just got to stay patient with it and keep doing the reps and eventually it'll become where it's second nature."
Was he injured? He didn’t seem to be limping, but two weeks after his game looked “sick” at Bay Hill, it’s been hospital-sick at Augusta. Woods would have had to stay at the range all night if he were to do penance for every wild shot Friday. He missed his approach shot right on 11 and bogeyed. He airmailed the green on 12 and saved par. He hooked his drive on 13, hit a poor second that stuck in the bank of Rae's creek, took a drop and then got up and down to salvage another par. After missing right with his second shot on 15, he dumped his flop shot into the bunker but saved par again.
Then came 16, when he fanned his tee shot; booted his iron a good 10 yards; nearly knocked his sand shot into the water hazard; and got up and down for an easy bogey. The bad news is he’s a touchdown and a two-point conversion off the lead; the good news is he won a placekicking tryout with the Oakland Raiders.
“Well, I just tried to give it everything I had on each and every shot,” Woods said. “Tried to stay focused and put the next shot where I wanted to put it. That wasn’t the case most of the time, but I was grinding hard.”
When he wasn’t grooving his two-way miss, he was missing putts. He hit just seven greens in regulation. After making two birdies on the first three holes, including the brutal par-4 first, he looked nothing like the pre-tournament favorite.
“Anybody can still win the golf tournament if they make the cut,” said Woods, who will play with Schwartzel (75) at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, and will be close to finished by the time the leaders tee off at 2:45 p.m. “Guys have won this tournament from five and six back going into the back nine. I just need to cut that [eight-shot margin] down a little bit tomorrow. Play a good, solid round and cut that deficit down, and get off to a quick start again on Sunday like I did last year.”
It used to be that when Woods “got it” with his swing, he would keep it. Not anymore, or at least not yet. He’s deep into his mortal phase, perhaps too deep to find a way out. What can a man learn from hitting golf balls in the dark?