AUGUSTA, Ga. – On Friday following an unsightly 75 Tiger Woods retreated to Augusta National’s palatial practice tee for solace and answers well past twilight. After Saturday’s 72 he ducked into a dark-as-night SUV and raced down Magnolia Lane, leaving only questions and his title chances in his wake.
For just the third time in his professional career at Augusta National Woods is over par through three rounds and, barring a dramatic change of fortunes, his title chances appear over as well.
“I need help from the guys this afternoon . . .,” he figured following another pedestrian day from tee to green. “I’d like to say it’s poor driving . . . but it’s just one thing after another.”
As sharp as Woods looked last month at Bay Hill on his way to a five-stroke drought buster he has appeared almost as lost this week.
In short, many people’s pre-tournament favorite has become a middle-of-the-pack fixture this week.
He didn’t start that way on Saturday. There were birdies at Nos. 3 and 4 to inch his way toward red figures, but one too many loose shots and lag putts stymied whatever steam he could muster.
Bogeys at Nos. 6 and 9 undid all of Woods’ early handiwork and nine consecutive pars to close his round must have felt like a back-nine 40.
There were flashes of progress, perfect drives at Nos. 10 and 15, for example, only to be marred by wide approach shots. At the 10th his approach sailed right of the green, at the par-5 15th he pushed his second into the bunker right of the green.
Still, both swings had the appearance of improvement over Friday. As far as we could tell it was Sean Foley on the backswing and follow-through, as opposed to that Hank Haney-Foley swing he had on Thursday.
“I got here and for some reason fell into my old patterns,” Woods said.
“Old patterns” is code for the residual parts of Haney’s teaching, a schizophrenic action he has reverted back to since he began working with Foley before the 2010 PGA Championship.
“I have to be honest,” Haney tweeted following Thursday’s round. “I didn’t see my backswing, but it was nice to hear my name mentioned.”
But if the no-man’s land between actions is the illness that will likely cost Woods his fifth green jacket this week, his play on Augusta National’s par 5s has been the chronic symptom.
When Woods’ bunker shot at the 15th stopped 25 feet short of the hole and he two-putted for par it completed a remarkable episode in Woods’ Masters career. Prior to this year Woods had posted just two rounds without birdieing a par 5 at Augusta National. He’s already doubled that effort this week following Saturday’s 0-for-4 effort.
Before this week Woods had played Augusta National’s par 5s in 133 under – compared to his lifetime total on the par 4s (26 over) and par 3s (23 over) – and in the last three years he’s been 10 under (2011), 15 under (2010) and 11 under (2009), respectively, on the par 5s. This week he’s 1 under.
“Unfortunately, I did not play the par 5s very well today,” Woods reasoned without a hint of irony.
It all added up to his worst Round 3 position (40th) ever as a professional and leaves virtually no chance he will wrest himself from the Masters schneid and win the year’s first major for the first time since 2005.
It was all enough to make one wonder if caddie Joe LaCava glanced over his shoulder on the 18th hole as his man’s birdie attempt raced by to the leaderboard and his old boss Fred Couples’ unlikely spot atop the field?
Of course, things could be worse for LaCava this week. He could still be on Dustin Johnson’s bag, who withdrew with a back injury before play began.
The last two years Woods has finished tied for fourth with a one-dimensional swing and a psychological storm brewing around him, and he’s proven himself adept at surprising the status quo with a Sunday surge.
Yet as Woods wheeled down Magnolia Lane Saturday afternoon one got the feeling that even he’d seen enough. Instead of the practice tee, where he’d bolted to following Thursday and Friday’s rounds, he said he was going to work out. Maybe he’ll find some answers in the gym.