Anticipation turns to anger as Tiger Woods goes winless at the Masters for a fourth straight year
Is he back, or not? Is he better, or worse?
A couple of weeks after the answers seemed obvious, it's suddenly tricky to know exactly what to think after Tiger Woods finished tied for sixth at the 73rd Masters with rounds of 70-72-70-68.
Sure, the consternation over the post-injury prodigal is just an extension of the customary second-guessing that has long attended Woods in defeat. But at the very least, it might be time to conclude that for all the long-held presumptions of Woods owning Augusta National, he really doesn't play the redesigned course all that well.
Since 2003, Woods has shot only six rounds in the 60s out of the 28 he has played on the dramatically lengthened course, and Sunday's 68 was the first time he has broken 70 in the final round on the new course. Also, his four-year stretch without winning a green jacket is the longest of his career.
It was a puzzling week for the world's No. 1-ranked golfer, full of clumsy mistakes and missed opportunities and frustrations, but without the offsetting miracles of last year's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Woods had 122 putts, a total exceeded by only three players among the 50 finishers. He was only two-for-six in sand saves, and several mediocre chips cost him. He seemed to get fooled by the wind or be off on his distance control repeatedly, and he admitted Saturday, "I've been a yard out all week, and a yard out around here means you end up 40 feet away." He also bemoaned a two-way miss with his driver, highlighted by two shocking pull hooks off the first tee that were reminiscent of his opening-hole travails at Torrey. And although he hit a lot of good putts, he left many more short. Most crucially, and uncharacteristically, he couldn't seem to close out his rounds, bogeying the 18th hole three times and never hitting the green in regulation.
The result? The most infuriating Masters of the 15 Woods has played. It's a thesis supported by a week in which his demeanor could be described as stone-faced and smoldering. After his second-round 72, he gave swing coach Hank Haney an earful on the practice range, a session that caddie Steve Williams had walked away from, at least until Woods cooled off. Sunday, after a fast interview with CBS' Bill Macatee and four more terse answers with print journalists, his last words before blowing by TV cameras in front of the clubhouse and making for Orlando were, "It was just terrible. I don't know what was going on. It was just frustrating."
So the speculation will begin again. For all the great wins since he began working with Haney in 2004, have the swing changes been the right ones? Is the relationship with Haney in jeopardy? Is there lasting damage in the left knee? Did Woods try to accomplish too much, too soon? Has he simply changed?
We shall see, but the main problem at Augusta—besides the unpredictable nature of competitive golf—was most likely the weight from Woods' enormous expectations. The Masters had been his goal ever since he began rehabbing his knee last July, during which he invested unceasingly rigorous work on both his body and his game. In the second event of his comeback at Doral, he exhibited the kind of variety and control in his shotmaking that convinced many observers he would be better than ever. When the putter and the short game showed up at Bay Hill (in retrospect covering up the beginning of inconsistencies in his long game), he won. The parts seemed to be in place, primed for a fifth green jacket and the first leg of the Grand Slam. Asked Tuesday to discuss the biggest question mark he carried into the Masters, Woods answered, "For me? How the golf course is going to be playing." That's it? "Mmmm." Translation: I'm ready.
But the internal pressure that Woods carries in majors—which at his best he tempers with an air of serenity—seemed palpable at Augusta. Dealing with it is likely going to remain a vital issue as Woods gets older. At this point in his career, Woods plays almost exclusively to win majors, which makes them an essentially all-or-nothing proposition. He indirectly made this clear when explaining why he voted for Padraig Harrington for PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2008, even though in less than half a season he compiled more victories and was more consistent. "Paddy won two. End of story," Woods said. When only winning can bring pleasure, and everything else produces displeasure, that's pressure.