AUGUSTA, Ga., April 8 — This qualifies as a major newsflash: Tiger Woods is human.
Deep down we knew that, but at times Woods has made it difficult to believe. He has played superhuman golf in major championships, which is how he won 12 of them by the time he turned 31, and he has made a career of executing inhuman shots under pressure.
So when he inched into the final pairing for Sunday’s final round of the Masters and had only Stuart Appleby ahead of him, it seemed like the sure thing it has been every other time Woods has been poised to win a major. Except this time, a funny thing happened on the way to the history books. Tiger Woods lost the Masters.
There’s a first time for everything. Oh, he’s been beaten in major championships before, but this was different. This was the first time he held the lead at some point in the final round of a major and didn’t win. That made it a bitter pill to swallow and, for Woods, a new experience. He blinked a couple of times as he walked up the 18th fairway, knowing he had let this Masters get away. He looked disgusted, upset, surprised and, maybe it was just my imagination, close to tears for a brief second or two before he put his steely competitor’s face back on.
Tiger’s finish was a surprise to everyone. Let’s be honest. Given his track record, this one was shocking.
“Well, they say a giant has to fall at some point,” said Zach Johnson, this year’s Masters champion. “I was sitting in the locker room waiting for Tiger to hit his second shot on 18. Before he hit it, I’m like, ‘He’s done stranger things.’ It makes it that much more gratifying knowing that I beat Tiger Woods, no question about it.”
That makes it that more curious, too. What happened to Tiger? He wore his traditional Sunday red shirt but covered it with a black sweater in the chill. That proved ominous because it was, indeed, a black Sunday for Woods. Except for his eagle on the 13th hole, which put him in second place and within intimidation distance of Johnson, Tiger didn’t look like Tiger.
He mis-read short putts. He drove into the trees. He hit poor chip shots. He broke a club hitting a dangerous shot from behind a tree. When it came to crunch time, he made a questionable decision to go for the 15th green and ended up in the water. He salvaged a par, but he needed a birdie. His swing wasn’t right, it seemed, and he knew it. It may have been something as simple as standing too close to the ball — he looked cramped and uncomfortable at address. Or it may have been bigger swing issues.
But Woods did not address his first final-round failure in a major. “This one’s not disappointing today,” he said. “I threw this tournament away on two days when I had two good rounds and finished bogey-bogey. Four bogeys in the last two holes basically cost me the tournament.”
Those words were spoken like a man in denial. Shots from previous days didn’t cost him a title. He grabbed the lead early in Sunday’s final round, but he went on to beat himself. In golf, there is no tougher truth to admit.
When Appleby double-bogeyed the opening hole and Woods bogeyed it, Woods fell into a temporary six-way tie for the lead with Justin Rose, Appleby, Johnson, Rory Sabbatini and Vaughn Taylor. Woods pulled his tee shot into the trees at the 2nd, escaped nicely and stiffed his third for a kick-in birdie. At the 3rd hole, with the tee moved up, Woods pulled out his driver. He hit it just short and left of the green and had an awkward pitch. He didn’t get it close and settled for par. When Johnson three-putted from long distance at the 5th hole, Woods moved into the lead by himself.
Still, he looked unsteady. He pushed his drive right of the fairway into the pine straw at the 5th and salvaged par. He came up short on the par-3 6th, chipped 12 feet past the hole and made bogey. At the 8th, in a clear sign that something was amiss with his swing, he hit 3-wood off the tee instead of driver. It’s a par-5 that Woods could have reached in two. Instead he came up 30 yards short in two, then made a weak pitch that didn’t get to the putting surface. Viewers at home surely wondered, who is this imposter? That should have been a birdie, but Woods settled for par.
At the 9th, another mistake. He flew his approach shot long and it settled on the upper tier of the green, which left Woods with a difficult lag putt. He slammed his club on the ground in disgust but two-putted for par and a front-side 37. That might have been a good score during the first three rounds at Augusta National, but birdies were running loose like wild turkeys on Sunday.
Then it got worse. He pushed his approach shot into the bunker at the 10th hole and made another bogey, misreading a four-foot par putt that broke right when he clearly expected it to go left. That happens at Augusta, but not usually to the best player in the world. There is a reason, after all, why he’s won four green jackets.
On the 11th, Woods blocked his drive and it settled near a tree. He sacrificed a club to get the ball out, bending the shaft on his follow-through. It was an amazing shot that you’ll see replayed for the next two days, and he followed it up with a sweet pitch to save a remarkable par. At the par-3 12th, after a long preshot routine in which he seemed to be trying to sort out his swing, he played a superb shot to the middle of the green. It was time to make a move, but his 20-foot putt pulled up five feet short. That was hardly the bold Tiger we’ve known for the past decade.
At the par-5 13th, it seemed like Tigerworld was about to return. His second shot appeared to momentarily stop on the green’s upper level before trundling down toward the cup. Eerily reminiscent of his famous chip-in at 16 two years ago, this shot stopped three feet away. Woods knocked in the putt for an easy eagle.
This would be the turnaround, the shot that would spark his miracle rally and lead him to victory. The game was on. Then Woods missed a difficult, sweeping 12-footer for birdie at the 14th. He followed that with a bad drive into the trees at the par-5 15th and decided to go for the green, which he didn’t need to do.
He was three shots behind Johnson, who still had to play 17 and 18, tough holes to par under pressure. (As it turns out, Johnson did bogey 17.) Woods went for the green and put it in the water. He dropped and got up and down to save par. If he’d laid up to that spot and gotten up and down, he would’ve had the birdie he needed.
It’s not like Woods to make a strategic error. It’s not like Woods to make so many errant shots, especially with the short game. When he arrived at 17, a birdie-birdie finish would have still put him in a playoff. He ripped a big drive down the fairway and, inexplicably, dumped the next shot into the front bunker. He and caddie Steve Williams had a brief and unhappy exchange. When Tiger didn’t hole the bunker shot, the tournament realistically belonged to Johnson.
Tiger had lost the Masters, but not, as he said, because of two bogey-bogey finishes earlier in the tournament. It was because of mistakes like the one he made at 17.
After the round, Woods was in no mood to talk about 15 or anything else. “Yeah, I had a chance there,” he said. “I had to hit some kind of miracle shot around that tree. But I hit a crappy shot and ended up in the water and still somehow made 5. So I kept myself in the ballgame.”
He didn’t make a double bogey all week. He had only one three-putt. Normally, stats like those would belong to the winner. Sunday night, they belonged instead to Woods. He finally lost a major. History will have to wait.