Errant drives, off-target approaches and, most notably, a few unfathomable reads on the greens turned the third round at Augusta National into a mess for Woods. He shot 3-over-par 75 and wound up at 3 over, tied for 20th place, nine shots behind leaders Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco.
It's folly, of course, to count Woods completely out of any tournament, no matter what the deficit. But after Saturday, it's hard to imagine him being fitted for a fourth green jacket.
'I'm very close to putting it altogether,' he said, repeating a mantra he's used all year. 'I made absolutely nothing today. If I make a few and put the ball in the fairway tomorrow -- I have 18 chances at it -- hopefully, I'll putt better than I did today.'
Officially, he needed 30 putts on Saturday, but that number doesn't tell the whole story.
The most telling episode came on the eighth green. Woods spent a full three minutes circling it, checking out angles and debating with his caddie, Steve Williams, about the 70-foot putt from the fringe he needed to roll over a large hump and down toward the hole.
The extra time didn't pay off. Woods hit the ball straight across the green, hoping it would reach the top of the hill and feed down. But it got to the top and stopped, leaving him 35 feet from the hole, in need of a tough two-putt for par.
He called it bad luck, in that he didn't hit the approach another foot or two. He also conceded he was bamboozled by the first putt, a surprising statement from a player who has mastered this course during the past seven years.
'I had absolutely no chance at it,' he said. 'I didn't know whether it was going to go left or going to go right. That's how it goes.'
It also went bad on No. 14, the most heavily contoured green on the course. Woods hit his approach shot well short, and on the right fringe. By that time, he was hurrying things a bit and it showed. Trying to get the ball near the hole at the back left, Woods putted up a hill that resembled a buried elephant, only to watch it take a U-turn and come back down the other side, stopping almost as far from the cup as it began.
He made bogey there to move to 5 over, and by then, the huge gallery that followed him to begin the day had thinned considerably. Those who stayed weren't so nice.
'C'mon, Jay. Show Tiger how it's done,' one fan yelled as Woods and playing partner Jay Haas approached the 15th tee.
'We all know he's the kind of guy who can come out here and shoot 65,' Haas said. 'If he comes out and things start clicking for him, he can pull it off.'
Indeed, Woods shot 69 on Friday to get back into the tournament.
But if the Woods who carded 75s on both Thursday and Saturday reappears, he'll be playing for a paycheck, and not much else.
Other third-round lowlights included:
-- A drive into the right bunker on No. 1, en route to bogey.
-- A missed 4-footer that would have saved par on No. 9.
-- A miscalculated shot on No. 12 -- the short par-3 -- that went behind the green, forcing him to scramble for par.
-- A drive on No. 13 that pinballed around in the woods, leaving him with an awkward punch-out that clipped another tree before rolling across the fairway. He hit his third shot -- 'a beautiful 5-iron,' he called it -- that hit the top of the hill on back of the green and barely trickled into a bunker. After overcooking the sand shot, he needed three putts to make double bogey.
'It's frustrating, because I'm so close,' Woods said.
He kept in range with two birdies over the last four holes. Always an optimist, he was counting on some windy, wicked weather Sunday to equalize things and give him a chance.
He'll need that kind of help, plus a collapse from his opponents, plus a boost in his game.
'As we know, anything can happen,' he insisted. 'I just want to come out and play well.'
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