AUGUSTA, Ga. — Playing in his first Masters in three years, Tiger Woods didn’t produce many highlights, couldn’t find a scoring gear and never was a factor after entering the week as one of the betting favorites. All of which misses the point.
This week, the comeback was the thing. And while a higher finish would have been preferred, playing four rounds at Augusta National was meaningful all by itself.
The four-time green jacket winner smiled often at his immense gallery during his final round, even as his frustrations mounted on a cool and sunny Sunday. His iron game never came around, and his putting provided few highlights with the exception of a nifty 29-foot eagle putt on the par-5 15th that propelled a closing 69. The stroke elicited a huge roar that could be heard all the way uphill to the clubhouse and the first tee, where the final pairing of Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy had just arrived to begin their day.
Not exactly where Woods wanted to be on the final day.
“That will be going on the mantel at home,” Woods said of the two crystal goblets he’ll receive for the eagle.
A nice parting gift in an otherwise up-and-down week. In the end, Tiger tried to take away the positives.
“To be able to play this golf course and to be able to tee it up and play in the Masters, this is one of the greatest walks in all of golf,” Woods said wistfully when he was asked just how much it meant to him to resume his role as a competitor and not just an invitee. “I had missed it for the last couple of years I hadn't been able to play in it. So now I'm glad I'm competing in this tournament. And to face the challenges out there. I missed it, I really did. I missed playing out here. I missed competing against these guys. Such a great event. Best run event in all of our sport.”
Woods was far from his best in his 21st Masters. There were a few highlights Sunday, including hitting the flagstick on the par-3 fourth hole that led to one of five birdies to go with his eagle. But he found it hard to appreciate his final-round effort because, he said, “today would have been one of those low rounds. I certainly had the opportunity to do it.” Particularly galling was his balky putter that not only prevented him from taking advantage of his best ball-striking of the week, but cost him strokes when he three-putted from six feet at No. 7 and again at 18.
That closing bogey left him with a one-over 289 total for the week, a stroke shy of his goal of finishing even for the tournament. He tied for 31st, a finish that moved him back inside the top 100 in the World Ranking after being outside the top 1,000 last December.
“I felt I hit it well enough off the tee to do some things, but I hit my irons awful for the week,” Woods, 42, said. “I did not putt well today. I didn’t put it together when I needed to for the entire week.”
“It was surprising for him. I think that’s by far the strength of his game,” Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie, said of his boss’s iron game. “From 150 in it was not very good, which isn’t like him. So, the first word that come to mind is disappointing as a whole. He was here for one reason. It was never like, ‘It feels great to be back at Augusta National.’ I heard more, ‘I suck,’ than I heard ‘It’s great to be back.’ ”
Which says a lot about what the 14-time major winner expected of himself in only his sixth event this year after spinal fusion surgery a year ago.
Traditionally, Woods has taken three to fours weeks off after the Masters, and he said he intended to do so again. He steered clear of any mention of his next start, but in years past he usually showed up at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., the week before The Players.
Disappointment aside, there were positives from his first major start since the 2015 PGA Championship.
“I think things are progressing,” he said, falling back on some predictable messaging that nonetheless rang true. “It was a little bit disappointing I didn't hit my irons as well as I needed to for this particular week. You miss it just a touch here it gets magnified. And I just didn’t do a good enough job this week in that regard. But, overall, I’m five or six tournaments into it. To be able to compete out here and to score like I did, it feels good.”
And that would have to be enough. At least for this year.