AUGUSTA, Ga. — Fourteen years removed from his most recent Masters victory, Tiger Woods has found his footing near the top of the leader board at Augusta National again. Once he regained his actual footing, that is.
During a Friday 68 that pulled Woods within one shot heading into the weekend, the 14-time major champ overcame several short misses, a weather delay that at least, briefly, curtailed his momentum, and a scary brush with a security guard who couldn't curtail his momentum on the 14th hole. Yes, a security guard. You read that right. If another Tiger highlight ever deserved the "In your life, have you ever seen anything like that?!" treatment, it was this one.
After Woods played his second shot from the left trees, a well-meaning man raced in to keep the encroaching crowd away. But the security guard slipped on the soggy grass and barreled into Woods as he walked by to have a glance at where his golf ball went. It looked like a baserunner sliding into a middle infielder to try to break up a double play—only Woods never saw it coming.
Fortunately, his right foot wasn't planted firmly, allowing him to pull his leg away in time to avoid any serious damage or (gulp) worse. After all, the man was one of the few people possessing more firepower than Tiger on this golf course. Woods grimaced and hopped toward the fairway before testing out his ankle and heading to the green.
Woods also avoided commenting much on the incident following his round.
"I'm fine, it's all good," he said. "Accidents happen and move on."
He later added, "I've had galleries run over me, it's just, you know, when you play in front of a lot of people, things happen."
Lost in the, um, shuffle momentarily was the magical recovery shot itself, a vintage combination of Tiger's imagination and talent in which he hooked his ball through a gap in the pines to 15 feet of the hole.
"I had a window there and if I hit it low … I had 154 on top, 67 hole," Woods said. "And I was literally just trying to hit the ball short. If it happened to skip up, great, but make sure I keep it on the flag side, don't let it go down to the right. If I keep it on the flag side I have an easy pitch. If it happens to skip up great, then I got a putt at it. But that was the game plan and it came out perfect to fruition."
And of course, following all this, Woods drained the birdie putt and unleashed a furious fist pump to complete a clip that will be shown long after this week is over.
Woods' Friday front nine was a bit more typical. Tiger turned in one under after three birdies, two bogeys and countless examples of patrons overlooking his world-class playing partners Jon Rahm and Haotong Li. On No. 7, a couple fans scrambled in the slop right of the fairway believing an errant tee shot belonged to Tiger. "I wouldn't have stepped in mud if I knew it was for Jon Rahm!" one exclaimed. Another follower asked a buddy if it was pronounced "LEE, LIE, or LEIGH?"
Tiger drew huge roars from fans packed in the new viewing area to the right of the fourth hole after converting a six-foot birdie. More eruptions followed when he drained long birdie putts on No. 6 and 9. But he saved the most spectacular—and bizarre—for a wild back-nine.
The thrill ride kicked into high gear when Woods took on a scary back-left pin on No. 11 and knocked in a 10-footer, the lone birdie of the day on the treacherous par 4. Then he stuck—literally—a 9-iron to five feet on No. 12. But before he could attempt his birdie, play was suspended due to lightning. Woods walked across Hogan's Bridge by himself to mark his ball and take a look at the putt before heading for cover.
When Woods finally struck that putt 30 minutes later, he missed. In fact, perhaps the craziest part of Tiger's round (other than THE craziest part, of course), was his tendency to miss the putts he expected to make, including a 10-footer on the next hole, while knocking in some unlikely bombs.
"Yeah, I missed a few putts out there, but I'm not too bummed out about it because I hit them on my lines. So I can live with that. I can live with days when I'm hitting putts on my line and they just don't go in, that's the way it goes," said Woods, who also three-putted for bogey on No. 8. "But I also made some distance putts there at 9, 14, 15, those were, they were nice to make and if I keep hitting the putts on my line, they will start dropping."
Another long birdie putt on 15 brought Woods to within one shot of the lead, but that was the closest he'd get as he let two more great birdie chances on 17 and 18 slip by. Despite the somewhat disappointing pair of pars to close, Woods, who trails the fivesome of Francesco Molinari, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Adam Scott, and Louis Oosthuizen by one through 36 holes, grinned from ear to ear as he walked through throngs of cheering fans.
"I feel like I played my own way back into the tournament. I was just very patient today, felt very good to be out there doing what I was doing," said Woods, who won the last of his four green jackets in 2005. "This is now three straight majors that I've been in the mix, and so it's good stuff."
It's good stuff for the patrons as well. They'll swarm the game's biggest star for a late tee time on Saturday—2:05 p.m., paired with Ian Poulter—just like in the good old days. But to everyone planning on being in Tiger's gallery—from those wearing fanny packs to those packing heat—please watch your step.