AUGUSTA, Ga. – Only two major championships in the modern era have ended on a Saturday: the 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open, both won by Tiger Woods long before anybody had completed 72 holes. This is mentioned because a lot of people, many of them educated golf fans, figured this year’s Masters was over after Woods shot a 66 Friday. If hindsight is 20/20, most folks need a very strong pair of eyeglasses to clearly see the future.
Twenty-four hours after his stellar second round, Woods’ latest attempt to reclaim the form that made him the most dominant golfer ever had again drifted awry. Tiger will enter Sunday seven strokes behind Rory McIlroy, a margin that appears even larger once it passes through the reality check. The young Irishman rarely misses a shot. Woods, meanwhile, sits in a pack of players tied for ninth. He has eight guys to pass in addition to the four others at 5 under.
By the way, congratulations if you had Bo Van Pelt as low American after 54 holes. I’m not sure even Mrs. Van Pelt saw that coming.
No sooner had Tiger holed an 8-foot birdie putt Friday evening than my Blackberry began dinging – most of the text messages were written shouts declaring that Woods was “back,” as if he’d won the last five gatherings at Augusta National before triple-bogeying the fire hydrant. “What do you think now, big boy?” one friend chirped at 7:41 p.m., a fastball-to-the-chin rebuttal to doubts I’d expressed about Tiger’s Masters chances on the “Grey Goose 19th Hole.”
My reply was fairly measured: “I think I need to see him play well two days in a row.” That obviously didn’t happen, nor has it happened even once since Woods returned to competitive golf a year ago this week. This isn’t a case of me patting myself on the back, it’s just a small dose of common sense, and the possibility certainly exists that Tiger could shoot a 64 tomorrow, then watch everybody behind him trip coming in, thereby handing him a fifth Masters title.
The Woods I saw Friday drove the ball into some undesirable spots but made up for it with some spectacular iron play. His short game was tidy and he made some key putts – something we haven’t seen at the majors very often in recent years. He bolted up that second-round leaderboard without his best stuff, but then, he never seems to have every part of his game working smoothly since the collapse of his personal life. Maybe others saw it differently, but Friday was just another good score that got him into the early-weekend mix. Nothing more, nothing less.
The analysts were quick to point out an ultra-optimistic Tiger trend: Woods had posted excellent Friday scores in each of his four previous Masters victories. A newsworthy stat, but these are different times, and the simple fact of the matter is that Eldrick NotRighty hasn’t shown us 36 holes of quality golf in forever. As composed as he appeared Friday, he looked frustrated and emotionally wrought by a couple of bad breaks Saturday. He missed a two-footer for par on the 11th green and seems to have forgotten the technique that made him one of the best bunker players alive.
So with all due respect to those who had Tiger slipping on an emerald blazer Sunday evening, I find myself waiting while Woods keeps searching. You can’t win a Masters from off the fairway anymore, which is why he hasn’t won one since 2005 and won’t win one in 2011. I’m guessing my Blackberry won’t be dinging a whole lot from here on out.