AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods punched the air with a wicked right cross after his putt nosedived into the hole at the 17th Friday at the Masters.
The strength of the emotion seemed curiously bold in the moment.
It was a putt for par, after all, to keep Woods within 12 shots of a runaway train named Jordan Spieth.
Woods looked a little bit like a football receiver on the wrong end of a 49-7 rout celebrating a touchdown just before going in for halftime.
The story of Woods so far in this Masters, however, was there to see in the boldness of that right cross. Woods actually believes he can still win this thing. You saw it in the emotion at the 17th, and you heard it in Woods’ voice after the round.
That’s the turn Woods is taking here through two rounds of the Masters.
A week ago, we were all wondering if he was going to embarrass himself, or if he was going to limp away yet again, wincing in pain and holding his surgically repaired back in another withdrawal. And now he is talking as if he really thinks he’s got a shot this weekend.
“I'm still right there,” Woods said. “I'm 12 back, but there are not a lot of guys ahead of me. And with 36 holes here to go, anything can happen, you know – '96 (when Greg Norman blew a six-shot, 54-hole lead) proved that. So we have a long way to go. There are so many holes.”
That’s why Woods spent a little extra time in scoring after his round, telling Augusta National officials that they ought to seriously consider turning on their subterranean turf conditioning system to suck some of the moisture and forgiveness out of the greens here.
Woods thinks Augusta National is playing too easy.
Yeah, the guy who shot 82 in his last full round in a PGA Tour event before coming here wants it playing tougher. That’s because he believes it’s easier to carve into a big lead when a course is on the edge, when misses court more disaster and when the possibility of collapse plays heavier on a leader’s mind.
“The scoring conditions were there because the greens were soft,” Woods said after shooting a 69, his best round in four years at the Masters. “We could be aggressive.
“The balls were spinning back, 5‑irons were making ball marks, things like that, things that you just don't normally find here. But it's up to the committee, if they want to make this golf course a little drier ... I was telling the guys earlier, it's quiet out there. There are no Sub-Airs going. If they turn on the Sub-Airs, they can suck the moisture out of this thing and get them firm. Or, they can live with it like it is, and we can go out there and make a bunch of birdies.”
Given the absolute disarray of his game this season, the lingering questions about the health of his back, the waywardness of his driver and the yippiness of his chipping, it’s seems nutty that Woods is practically begging Augusta National’s competition committee to make the course tougher.
This day should have ended as a moral victory for Woods.
Yes, he doesn’t believe in those, but there was a lot to celebrate Friday in the Woods camp, mostly in how this day didn’t end.
It didn’t end in a missed cut.
It didn’t end with a withdrawal because of injury.
It didn’t end in a withdrawal with a segment of media wondering if the injury was due more to emotional pain to embarrassing performances than to physical pain
It didn’t end in a scrum in the parking lot.
No, for Woods, it ended with him lobbying Augusta National members to make the golf course harder. While most of his fellow players were ending their rounds raving about what the young dynamo Spieth was doing, Woods was plotting a comeback that reaches beyond this being merely a stepping stone to future runs into contention.
There was a bounce in Woods’ step again Friday, returning confidence in his body language. He told us this week he worked his butt off to feel that again.
“Very proud of what I've done, to be able to dig it out the way I have,” Wood said. “I told you guys on Tuesday, I was at a pretty low one in my career, but to basically change an entire pattern like that, and put it together, and put it in a position where I can compete in a major championship like this, is something I'm very proud of.”
Woods stubbed one chip Friday, but it was a delicate shot at the sixth green, a nearly impossible play to a tricky pin. His chipping looked really solid for two days. He hit some wayward tee shots, but he has hit a lot more good ones.
This week is a large turning point for Woods, so far. He can change the nature of the questions looming over him with a strong finish this weekend, whether it ends in a victory or not.
And then again, he could leave wondering if he should be careful about what he wishes for should Augusta National become too tough for his rebuilt game.
Augusta National knows how to deliver right crosses, too.