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Masters 2023: Tiger's poor play shows how far the legend has fallen

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Ross Kinnaird

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The rain was cold and it was falling straight down. Friday’s windstorms, the ones that felled tall pines, flattening chairs but amazingly not people, was on a path for Dodge. The air mass above Augusta National was still. The smell of burning cedar from a clubhouse fireplace was trapped in the low sky, soaked fans only 50 feet and one white brick wall away from the cozy warmth of the deeply lucky. More than a few fans were wearing the merch item of the year, a baseball hat with six big letters above the brim: PATRON. When Augusta National developed its irony gene, nobody knows, but survey says WE LIKE.

You make $3.2 million for winning. The club gives you a green sport coat. You pick up the tab for the Champions Dinner. Tuesday night, April 9, 2024, is the next one. A google search for “Brooks Koepka’s favorite food” turns up nothing. Not that anybody has a phone on the golf course. But the giant leaderboard beside the first fairway did show Koepka with a four-shot lead through six holes of the third round.

We’re not counting chickens or anything else. Thirty holes of Sunday golf and 10 miles of walking remain. But this Brooks Koepka is an ox.

Jon Rahm, four behind him, is a bull.

Sam Bennett is a young man with a lot of swagger and a suddenly famous tattoo on his left arm. (Don’t wait to do something.—Pops.) He’s a 23-year-old who was three shots behind Rahm, and seven shots behind Koepka, when the shrill horns were sounded through the golf course, suspending play for the day at 3:15 p.m.

Thirty holes won’t faze Bennett. He played 36 holes in the Sunday finale of last year’s U.S. Amateur in a 1-up win over Ben Carr. When you’re skinny and fit and 23, you can play all day.

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When Tiger Woods was the low amateur at the 1995 Masters, his caddie was Tommy Bennett, a Black man and a club caddie from a historic Black neighborhood in Augusta called Sand Hills. (You might guess no relation—Sam Bennett is white–but who knows?) It was Tiger’s first Masters, and he made the cut. Maybe 28 years from now, Sam Bennett will be playing in the Masters, as Woods is this year. Yes, Tiger Woods made the cut on the number. He’s 47. Phil Mickelson is on the leaderboard. He’s 52. Fred Couples made the cut. He’s 63. Golf does long well.

It was miserable, out on the course on Saturday. Your feet were wet and your bones were cold and every step was treacherous. Downhill was the hardest part. Every patron will tell you that, every caddie, every player with a reconstructed knee. Koepka will tell you that. Tiger, too. I went splat on one occasion. The last time I had done that at Augusta National was in 2005, caddying in the tournament. The caddie sheet said you had to wear tennis shoes. I wore tennis shoes, Stan Smiths. Fluff (Mike Cowan), helping me up off a wet downhill part of the 1st hole, said don’t wear tennis shoes.

Tiger is like a warrior. That has been his mindset all his golfing life, as an amateur and as a pro. Years ago, I remember when the horn sounded and play was suspended as he stood on the 17th green. He had been playing poorly and so had his playing partner, Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. Bjorn was motioning for Woods to get into a waiting van for a ride back up the hill to the clubhouse when Woods said to him, “Do we deserve it?” They hiked on up.

On Saturday, Woods was playing with Sungjae Im of South Korea and Thomas Pieters of Belgium. Pieters, like Woods, is represented by Mark Steinberg and his company, Excel Sports. Or he was. Pieters went LIV in February and Steinberg, like Woods, famously aligned with Jay Monahan and the PGA Tour, dropped Pieters. Now here was Tiger, playing beside the tall and lanky Belgian, with Steinberg inside the clubhouse, wisely enjoying its creature comforts.

The horn sounded when Woods and Pieters and Im were on the 17th green. Poor Tiger. He walked across the green like an old man, covered in rain gear, an umbrella over his head, a baseball hat and a ski cap on it. His left foot could only go a foot or two beyond his right with ever step. His pain was obvious. Cold rain. Manmade body parts. No sleep. An awkward pairing. (Not Im.)

Pieters decided to play a chip shot before calling it a day, a smart thing to do. Always easier to restart with a putt than a chip. Woods, a study in patience, stood and watched, stood and watched as more cold rain pounded his umbrella. Pieters chipped and marked, and Woods waited for him to come off the green before they headed off to a waiting van.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com