Tiger Stuck in Neutral at Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- This is not Tiger Woods golf course any more.
 
At least not in the way he once practically owned it.
 
Woods, whos won this tournament four times, hinted as much when he hit town earlier this week. And nothing has happened over the first two days of the Masters to change that perception. When Augusta National officials ordered up major course overhauls in both 2002 and 2006, they came under fire for trying to Tiger-proof the course. What they really accomplished is making it a little more Tiger-resistant.
 
Only a fool would bet against Woods even now, even though he heads into the weekend seven shots behind leader Trevor Immelman, whos at 8-under 136. Hes made up bigger deficits before, and he came from four and six shots off the pace to win earlier this year.
 
But here are two stats that tell you how out of sorts he looks on the new but not necessarily improved Augusta National at the moment:
 
No. 1'Since his last win in 2005, Woods has failed to break 70. Yes, hes placed second and third in the last two years, finishing at 4-under and 3-over. But here are Woods scores the four times hes walked off with the green jacket: -18, -16, -12 and -12.
 
No. 2'Until he shot a 1-under 71 on Friday, Woods had gone five consecutive rounds here without breaking par. Thats his longest such streak without a subpar round at Augusta since Woods turned pro, and its just one short of his longest streak at any major, which came in the U.S. Open.
 
Funny coincidence, that, since the U.S. Open is what Woods said the Masters was in danger of becoming just a day earlier. That means more valuable pars, fewer birdies and even less cheers.
 
The way the golf course plays now, Woods said after an opening round at even-par 72 Thursday, you dont really shoot low rounds here anymore. Youve just got to plod along. Theres really only one roar I heard all day.
 
Woods didnt quite plod along in round two. Instead, he careened from high to low and side to side all day long, like a pinball in one of those glass-topped machines with flippers.
 
He made a spectacular birdie at the first, throwing a wedge off pine straw through a gap at the top of a tree not 20 yards ahead'and directly in his line ' to 10 feet and made that for birdie. At No. 2, after cautiously laying up with both his drive and his approach shot, Woods drop-kicked a simple 25-yard pitch into a bunker and made bogey.
 
I just flipped it, he said. Trying to put more spin on it, trying to loft it up there with a lot of spin and I overdid it.
 
Woods never quite said he was playing defensively, but he used another word to describe his game'patient'that you hear at the U.S. Open a lot. His swing coach, Hank Haney, said his star pupil hasnt changed the way he plays, but that even Woods has had to change the way he plays Augusta National.
 
Ive rarely seen him play so well, Haney said, and be so far behind.
 
People have this illusion that this is still some kind of wide-open golf course, he added. Its not.
 
What Augusta is not, either, is as much fun as it used to be. The course not only looks different, it sounds different. Architect Tom Fazio, who toughened up the course by adding yards and trees on some holes, and expanding the bunkers in key landing areas on several others, stood outside the clubhouse midway through the opening round and noticed how quiet the place suddenly seemed.
 
He said he wouldnt be surprised if the lack of noise heralded what he called the single red-digit era. If thats what the future holds, tighten the laces on your shoes. Its going to be a long, hard slog.
 
I dont care who you are in this tournament, Woods said, you have to play well under tough conditions here. Thats kind of how its going to end up being. Youve just got to stay so patient around this golf course, especially if the conditions get blustery and swirly like today. You have to back off shots, get recommitted, and play unusual shots. you hit weird clubs out here under these conditions.
 
It wasnt supposed to be like this. Woods had won eight out of 10 tournaments dating back to last August. Everybody gathered at Augusta this year for what was supposed to be a coronation. Somebody even asked Woods how it felt to be within reach of a fifth Masters win, especially since that would put him halfway to Jack Nicklaus outlandish prediction a few years earlier that Woods would win 10.
 
Well, I felt that he was a little out there saying that. I hadnt made a cut yet, Woods said.
 
But you know, I just think that the way the golf course was set up then, versus the way its set up now, guys with power had just a huge advantage. You know, if it would have stayed that way, guys with big power could have taken over.
 
A moment later he added: But that has changed quite a bit.
 
How much remains to be seen.
 
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