AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger, tiger, burning bright, again, not in Blake’s forests of the night but here. A 64 by one guy, a 64 by another, three 64s today, the most in a single Masters round ever. And yet the brightest of the red numbers was Tiger’s 67. Now, with a day to go, he has that winner’s look, again.
Did you see him along the creek at the 13th? His tee ball didn’t reach the dogleg turn. No way he could put a second on the par-5 green. So he punched a little draw around the corner to 69 yards. From that fairway’s famously uneven ground, he did what only the best of them do. He hit a low line drive with a wedge that hopped twice on the green and had such backspin it skidded to a sudden stop six feet behind the hole. He touched a putt downhill. Birdie.
How about on the 16th tee? He’d made another birdie at the par-5 15th, easy stuff. Once upon a time, he owned this place. Twenty-two years ago, he made it his, a champ at age 21, youngest ever, winner by 12 shots. He had a game with which even Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were not familiar, a game so good that Jack said Tiger would win more Masters than he and Arnie combined—meaning a number larger than 10. It has now been 14 years since Tiger won the most recent of his four Masters. It has been two or three knee surgeries, four back surgeries, four new swings. The man who once spent 281 straight weeks as the World’s No. 1 player also once went 924 days without winning anything.
There was a time he seemed odds-on to match Nicklaus’ 18 majors. Then it was dead certain he’d never win even his 15th. Now, somehow, in a golfer’s middle-age, Woods had a shot at last summer’s British Open and closed with a 64 to finish second in the PGA Championship.
All well and good. But Carnoustie is not Augusta, nor is Bellerive Augusta, and here is where Eldrick Woods became Tiger.
Did you see him today, on the 16th tee? He did this little thing. He did it the way the good ones do it when they’re doing good. No big deal, he just took off his golf glove. It’s the way he did it, casually, crisply, as if, yes, that shot was done well and now I’ll take off my glove well and I’ll fold it well and I’ll place it in my pocket well, just so, four fingers showing. Cool. Even cocky. And why not? On the par 3 he’d dropped an 8-iron to seven feet and as he walked along the pond there, we saw not one Tiger or two, but three, for the still water carried his reflection, and in his purposeful strides we saw Tiger burning bright, again.
Another birdie, that little putt. And Tiger quick-stepped to the cup, to fetch the ball, eager to get on with it, everything working the way he wanted it to work. He saw all the red numbers on the scoreboards. He saw that Patrick Cantley had put up a 64, and Tony Finau was on the way, and Webb Simpson had done that number, too. After three days of rain this week, Augusta National was so soft that Woods said, “The golf course is certainly gettable.”
And yet, through five holes, Woods was one over par. Asked later if he gave himself “a talking to” on the way to the 6th tee, he said, “Yeah, I did. Just be patient. … Let the round build.” On the sixth green, Woods made his only putt of any length today, an 18-footer for the first of three straight birdies followed by a kick-in one-footer at the seventh and a two-putt birdie from 11 feet on the eighth.
He said he’d come to work with a plan today, move from six under to double figures. He “drove it well and hit my irons well” and “made some putts. … and here I am,” 11 under and two shots behind the leader, Francesco Molinari. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here. But then again, the last two majors count for something. I’ve been in the mix with a chance to win … and so that helps.”
It also helps that he remembers how to win. “I always feel pressure,” he said. “The day I don’t feel pressure is the day I quit. I always thought that if you care about something, obviously you’re going to feel pressure. And I’ve always felt it, from the first time I remember ever playing a golf tournament to now. That hasn’t changed.”