Woods hurries a putt, and now winning will have to wait

Tiger Woods had a rare lapse with a short putt in Sunday's final round.
Al Tielemans/SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sunday night turned into Monday morning. Jim Mackay, Phil’s caddie, celebrated the victory at T-Bonz, a steakhouse on Washington Road, with his wife, Jen, and some close friends, including Joe LaCava, caddie for Fred Couples. Early Monday afternoon, Adam Scott, looking like a movie star, checked out of the downtown Marriott here, owned by Billy Morris, an Augusta National member who also owns the local paper, The Augusta Chronicle.

On lunch tables across town people were reading about Mickelson’s third green coat and looking at pictures of the Phil-Amy hug. In at least one conversation (my own) people were remembering the single most shocking thing in this year’s Masters. It wasn’t the 6-iron Phil threaded through a hole that could hardly accommodate a shoe. That wasn’t a shocker — that was a treat. No, the shocker came from Tiger, doing something I’d never seen him do before. He didn’t grind it out.

I am referring to just one shot: the two-footer for par he missed on 14 on Sunday. He was burning hot at the time: three bogeys on the front side built on some wildly inconsistent play, followed by the genius moments that make Tiger Woods Tiger Woods. Playing in the penultimate group, he wasn’t completely out of it when he stuffed his approach shot on the par-4 14th. Birdie there, eagle on 15 and it would have been roar city. Kid Tiger would still have been trailing, but he would have been right back in it. But he pushed his birdie putt on 14, maybe a five-footer, a wave of a stroke. The putt never had a chance. It was nothing the Tiger who has awed the golfing world would ever have produced. His disappointment at that moment had to be absolutely profound.

The chance had come and gone, and Tiger’s thing is to always seize the chance. In some ways, this was the biggest tournament he has ever played. What would be the ultimate way to silence his critics, including Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne? Win your first tournament back. You knew, from what he said and how he carried himself, that Woods had the idea in his head, rightly or wrongly, that he could take a big step toward making his world right with the simple act of winning a golf tournament, this particular golf tournament, the event where he announced himself to the world in 1997, when he won at age 21 and buried himself in the arms of his father, Earl.

Make the putt on 14, let the legend grow on 15 and the rest of the way in, nip Phil by a shot or in the playoff, bury the SNL spoofs, the various parodies of the I-hear-dead-people Nike ad and everything else. Redemption. Clean living. A second chance. A new start. The first leg of the Grand Slam. Maybe — maybe — return home and find the arms of his beautiful wife, Elin, with leg hugs from the kids. The moment, the opportunity, was huge. And then it was gone. And he had to be feeling empty.

And in his emptiness he did something shocking. He mailed it in. Something I had never seen him do before. He didn’t take his time with the short one. Do you know what his batting average is from two feet and in? Something very close to a thousand. Why? Because he always grinds it out. This time he didn’t. He put the putter head behind the ball, gave it a nonchalant tap, missed it left, walked around the hole and tapped in for bogey.

The miss was probably just a glitch, likely something he’ll learn from and never do again. That’s what you would expect from the old Tiger. He learned from his mistakes like nobody else. The new Tiger we don’t know about. As Sunday turned to Monday, he headed home, back to work on his family stuff. Meanwhile, here at the Marriott, guys got in their cars and headed on down the road. Next stop, Hilton Head.

You’ve got to love Tour life. Every week’s a fresh start.