AUGUSTA, Ga. – By most standards, Tiger Woods’ comeback would be deemed a success. He contended for a fifth Masters title when some wondered if he’d even make the cut. He took a step toward winning back fans who were appalled by the serial cheating on his wife.
Woods didn’t look at it that way.
He came back to the Masters to win, not just contend. To him, there was no joy and no relief in tying for fourth in his first tournament in five months, only disappointment and frustration.
He had vowed to tone down his emotions, try to smile a little more, acknowledge the fans every now and then. But that even temperament quickly faded as the poor shots piled up. He yelled at himself several times, loud enough for the gallery to hear and the television microphones to pick up. He flipped clubs away in anger.
Afterward, Woods got a bit testy when asked if the new Tiger was still a work in progress.
“I think people are making way too much of a big deal about this thing,” he said. “I’m not going to be walking there with a lot of pep in my step because I hadn’t hit a good shot yet.”
Woods did hit some good shots, of course. The best Sunday was an 8-iron that he holed from the fairway at No. 7 for an eagle. He followed with back-to-back birdies and made the turn just three strokes out of the lead, looking as though he was ready to make a charge.
But Woods has never come from behind on the final day to win a major, and this one wasn’t any different.
Another errant tee shot at the 11th led to a bogey. Then, an inexplicable three-putt from 6 feet ended his hopes at the 14th.
He did bounce back to make an eagle on the par-5 15th, but Mickelson was pulling away at that point. A short birdie putt at the final hole only assured that Woods tied K.J. Choi for fourth place.
“I had another terrible warmup,” Woods said. “I didn’t have it. And it was pretty evident.”
Yes it was, right from the start. He yanked his opening drive into the adjacent ninth fairway and wound up with a bogey. Two more bogeys followed in the next five holes, and he was on the verge of falling off the leaderboard.
Even though he turned things around before heading to the back side, Woods never felt he was a serious contender.
“I still was pretty far out of it,” he said. “The guys were making birdies on the easier holes and for most of the day I was four, five, six back. It’s a long way to climb and I was still making mistakes out there. I made too many mistakes.”
He seemed a little hard on himself.
But when Woods decided to return to golf at one of the biggest tournaments on the schedule, a place where he had captured four of his 14 career major titles, it was all in for the world’s top-ranked player.
He was here for a fifth green jacket. Nothing else was acceptable.
“I entered this event and I only enter events to win,” said Woods, whose wife Elin did not attend the tournament. “I didn’t get it done. I didn’t hit the ball good and I made too many mistakes around the greens. Consequently, I’m not there.”
This was Woods’ first tournament since November. A Thanksgiving night car crash had ripped his personal life apart, revealing a golfer with an impeccable reputation who was actually leading a sordid double life.
For a while mistresses were coming forward on an almost daily basis. Woods went into hiding and tried to figure out how to save his marriage. He even checked into rehab for 45 days, hoping to learn how it all went wrong, a process of self-examination that he admits revealed plenty of flaws.
Despite his disappointment Sunday, Woods clearly made the right personal decision to make his return at Augusta; it exhibits more control over ticketing and media credentials than any other tournament. Everyone expected the fans would be polite, and they seemed to warm to Woods as the week went on. The muted applause got louder and louder when it became apparent he would be a contender.
It might be different at future tournaments, where the crowds are rowdier and the tabloid media may have more success gaining access.
Woods is more concerned about getting his game in shape.
“Other than my backswing going bad and my downswing going bad, it wasn’t too bad,” he griped.
Woods said he’s not sure when he’ll play again, but the next stop in his comeback figures to be the Quail Hollow Championship, which begins April 29 in Charlotte, N.C. That would give him a tuneup for the Players Championship the following week, considered the biggest event on the PGA Tour outside of the four majors.
“I’m going to take a little time off,” is all Woods would say, “and kind of re-evaluate things.”