The 2015 MastersApril 9, 2015

Tiger's Forward Progress

Tiger Woods might not win this Masters, but it's at least something to build on

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So Tiger Woods's tee shot on the 17th hole went CLUNK against a high loblolly pine branch and dislodged two pine cones. No sooner did the cones bounce against the ground than an entrepreneur said, "Them pine cones, let's put 'em on eBay!" For they had been touched, in a way, by Tiger. And today Tiger was Tiger, in a way. Shot a 69, his best round here in four years. Good enough to pull even with Rory McIlroy. Good enough to imagine chasing down Jordan Spieth.

Before that, Woods stood on pine needles in the loblollies along the 17th to size up his next shot. The possibilities seemed daunting. An amateur in that jail might not escape for years. Tiger had only one thought. His eyes kept moving to the top of a tree about 50 yards ahead.

"Going up?" Joe LaCava, his caddie, asked.

"Straight down, though," Tiger said, suggesting that a shot high enough to clear the 70-foot tall tree might not have arc enough to reach the green 147 yards away.

Tiger's eyes flicked upwards again. And again. Now he had a club in hand, a 7-iron maybe. Eyes up. Scootching his feet on the needles, getting a firm footing. He would go up. The way it happens at these moments, silence arrived -- until Tiger swung that 7-iron at who knows what clubhead speed. It was speed enough that the steel against a golf ball created a CLICK that suggested a gunshot. And the ball, answering to the laws of physics, rocketed over that tall tree and came down -- not straight down at all -- it somehow came down three steps short of the 17th green.

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As nicely done as that was, the better part came after Woods's third shot rolled 15 feet past the cup. In the times of Tiger's ascendancy, he didn't make every 15-footer for par, but it sure seemed he did. And that's what he did this time, touching a putt that curled in on its last roll, the ball's disappearance causing one of those nearly-forgotten Tiger fist pumps that once celebrated every putt he thought was critical to victory.

His 69, three under par for the day, moved him to two under for the tournament, 12 shots behind Spieth and seven behind Charley Hoffman, but, really, within sudden reach of everyone else in front of him. And who'd have thought that coming in? Woods had played so poorly this year -- once chili-dipping his way to an 82 -- that he took himself out of play for repairs. Two months later, having "worked my ass off," here he was, on a Friday at Augusta, making four birdies in his first 11 holes -- and it might have been six, had two putts rolled another foot total.

He birdied the first hole from 8 feet. He birdied the seventh with a big, sweeping, right-to-left 30-footer. A pitch to a foot at the eighth produced his third birdie, and then, at the 11th, when the galleries had come to notice his presence, there he was in the right-side trees, no chance at all until somehow he threaded a high wedge through branches to 15 feet, and a Tigerophile in the crowd, with seven beer cups jammed into his shorts, said, "Look out, boys, Tiger's prowlin' again." Tiger made that putt, too.

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His only bogey came at the sixth when his tee shot left him a scary 40-foot chip shot that he left 10 feet short. Maybe the memory that one -- with the demons of months past not yet fully exorcized -- prompted Woods to putt from off the green at both the 14th and 17th, both times creating pars.

Though Woods pronounced himself "very proud" of his work the first two rounds -- the 69 was his first sub-70 round here since 2011, and his first sub-70 round in a PGA Tour event since December -- he is veteran enough to know that he left shots out there. Scoring conditions were ideal, with little wind and soft greens. "We could be aggressive," Woods said. But he left putts short. "I had a hard time getting the ball close to the hole. . . . You expect certain putts to roll out, but they're not rolling out."

How the last two days of the tournament play out is up to the Masters competition committee, Woods said. If the committee leaves the course soft, birdies are there. If it allows it to dry out, not so much. Either way, Woods is encouraged.

"I'm still right there," he said. "I'm 12 back (of Spieth) but there's not a lot of guys ahead of me. And with 36 holes here to go, anything can happen, you know." Here, the historian Eldrick Woods reminded his listeners of a time when Greg Norman slept on a big lead: "'96 proved that." Down six shots when he awoke on Sunday, April 14, 1996, Nick Faldo won by five.