Tiger Woods proved at Masters that he still doesn't need his best to contend

Tiger Woods proved at Masters that he still doesn’t need his best to contend

Tiger Woods made two eagles, four birdies and five bogeys on Sunday.
Al Tielemans/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — We know at least one thing about Tiger Woods that hasn’t changed: He still doesn’t have to play his best golf to get into contention at a major championship.

Woods proved that with one of the most Jekyll-and-Hyde weekends of his career at the 74th Masters. He made seven birdies in Saturday’s third round but didn’t break 70 and lost ground to the leaders. His highlight video from Sunday’s final round might convince you that Woods shot 64 and won this Masters by six strokes. A package of his bad shots from the same round would make you think he’s a 3-handicapper who shot 89. The truth was somewhere in between: this was one of the ugliest rounds of three-under-par you’ve ever seen.

Skeptics who doubted that Tiger could survive 72 holes of Augusta National this week got a boost right off the first tee when he pull-hooked his opening drive into the adjoining ninth fairway. His 40-yard pitch from in front of the green — a bread and butter shot for an in-form Tiger — was lucky to remain on the back fringe of the green and led to a bogey that put an immediate crimp on his chances to win, and sent exactly the wrong message to the leaders, Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood, that he wasn’t going to breathe down their necks.

Still, Woods still has the never-say-die spirit in him. When he holed out with a wedge from the seventh fairway for an eagle — a kind of I-can-top-you-Phil moment after Mickelson’s hole-out for eagle at the 14th on Saturday, the loudest roar of the week — then followed it up with birdies at the eighth and ninth holes, it appeared he might still be a factor. But that was as close as Tiger ever got.

He played Plinko in the trees right of the 11th fairway but looked likely to escape unscathed after hoisting a Grade A recovery shot over the trees to five feet. Except he missed the par putt. Bundle the putts Woods missed from inside five feet on the weekend, and the held-together-with-baling-wire-and-twine swing he used still would’ve had him pushing Mickelson and Westwood to the bitter end.

The frustrations of his play, and maybe of this entire humbling week, finally boiled over at the 14th. He was out of it by then, four shots back, but he stiffed an approach shot to four feet. He barely caught a piece of the hole with the birdie putt, then walked over and without taking the time to properly set up, stabbed at the two-footer for par. He missed that one, too. Three putts from five feet. That’s not a Tiger Woods we’re familiar with.

Chalk it up to five months off. Chalk it up to the hysteria, the scandal fallout, the distractions, the lack of practice and maybe the pressure applied by the roars created by Mickelson, Westwood, Fred Couples and the rest. But Woods basically came off the bench in the fourth quarter and finished fourth in his 2010 debut at the Masters. It was amazing in many ways, although Tiger’s reaction was completely predictable: “Well, I entered this event and I only enter events to win and I didn’t get it done,” he said, reciting a boring mantra we’ve heard many times. “I didn’t hit the ball good enough, I made too many mistakes around the greens. Consequently, I’m not there. I finished fourth. Not what I wanted. As the week wore on, I kept hitting it worse. After Friday, it was not very good.”

Woods even dropkicked a couple of 3-wood tee shots (notably on the par-5 13th hole) that resulted in weak popups. Again, something we’ve never seen from him. When he met with reporters after a curt interview with Peter Kostis of CBS, Woods was still ticked off (feel free to imagine a stronger word not fit for print). And he was in no mood to take a big-picture look at his performance relative to his early-week comments that he intended to improve his on-course behavior.

“People are making way too much of a big deal of this,” he said. “I was not feeling good. I hit a big snipe off the first tee and I don’t know how people think I should be happy about that. I hit a wedge from 45 yards and basically bladed it over the third green. These are not things I normally do. So I’m not going to be smiling and happy. And I hit one of the worst, low quack-hooks on No. 5. So I’m not going to be walking around with a lot of pep in my step because I hadn’t hit a good shot yet.”

The defeated golfer is never happy with his good shots, either. Maybe they weren’t even good shots in his view. On the seventh hole he hit an 8-iron off an upslope to the middle of the green, then watched it catch the big slope, run down toward the hole and break sharply into the cup for an eagle. He dropped his club and broke into a big mock grin, sharing a laugh with caddie Steve Williams. “I used the slope and got lucky and it went in. That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly.

For a read on just how sloppy Tiger’s week was, how about this: He carded four eagles over four rounds, tying a Masters record shared by Bruce Crampton (1974) and Dustin Johnson (2009). Let’s see, that’s four eagles plus 17 birdies and still he finished only 11 under par. Thank you, 14 bogeys.

Woods was still defrosting well into his chat with reporters behind the 18th green. “I had a two-way miss going so it was really tough,” he said. “I had a terrible warm-up today. I didn’t have it and it was pretty evident. I felt very uneasy on every shot I hit.”

Despite that, he finished in a tie for fourth with K.J. Choi. That’s a pretty good “uneasy” showing. Woods eventually admitted that yes, it was a good week overall for him but didn’t go into details about whether he meant his golf, his return or his relationship with the fans and media.

He’ll have two months to get ready for the next major, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Woods wouldn’t say where he’ll play next — options include the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, the flagship Players Championship at Sawgrass (where he last visited to perform his televised mea culpa), or the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, in early June. He would say only that he’s taking some time off to re-evaluate things. What things? He didn’t say.

When the Masters began, crowds gathered around the first tee to see Tiger hit his first shot in competition in more than five months. “This is history,” one large, middle-aged man in a bucket hat told his younger, slimmer friend. Tiger blew that very first drive Thursday afternoon right down the middle, as pretty as you please. It felt right, it felt necessary but it didn’t feel historic. By Sunday evening, Tiger was history of a different kind. He is back, sort of, and at least on the road to whatever will constitute normal for him from now on.

A squadron of security officers formed around him after he finished a short interview for international TV following his post-round briefing, and led him through a sea of thousands of curious fans, some of them squinting into the late-day sun to catch a glimpse of the man who is golf’s greatest player and most infamous celebrity, but not the 2010 Masters champion. Like a good running back following his blockers, Woods walked briskly with his safety net between the crowds, under the sprawling oak tree and disappeared into the clubhouse. It was a quick and effectively choreographed exit.

Which, come to think of it, makes two things we know about Tiger Woods that haven’t changed.