The ball came skipping over the brow of the hill and rolled to a stop up against the trunk of the pine.
Soon after, along came Tiger Woods. When he saw it he let out a long, slow sigh: "Not again." His reaction was a little more reserved than that of the cameraman who arrived moments later. He came round the corner from the green, took one look at the lie and instinctively ejaculated a cry of "Oh, Jesus", which earned him a stern look from a nearby security guard, who had just warned the crowd that anyone who cried "Get in the hole" when Woods came near would be kicked off the course.
Woods, as he had done so many times already that day, and this week, swallowed his frustration, weighed his options and played a wonderful recovery shot, chipping the ball out over a hill on to the green of the 8th. But still the scene told a story. There were points during his final round when you could not see Woods for the trees. He had to play his second shot from the pine needles on the 1st, the 2nd, the 8th, the 11th and the 13th. And if he was not there, then he was usually in the rough. Around the seven par-four and par-five holes on Augusta National's front nine he did not find the fairway once. The problem was counterpointed by his playing partner, Tim Clark, one of the straightest drivers on the PGA Tour.
There were two bogeys in that first nine too. In the first three rounds Woods had found himself in a bunker five times and had scrambled out on each occasion to make par. On the 7th, though, for the first time this week, he could not do it. That gave him his second bogey and dropped him back to one under par. His putting was at fault for his first. That was on the 5th, when he seemed to be foxed by the slow speed of the damp greens, left his first effort well short and ended up making his second three-putt of the week.
Another golfer would have been broken by all this. But Woods is nothing if not extraordinary. As he came towards the turn the gallery was starting to desert him, drifting away to other holes, lured by the raucous roars breaking out everywhere else across the course. All the action was happening somewhere behind him. Only the faithful stayed with Woods, in the hope, if not the expectation, that he would still be able to conjure a little magic. And they were rewarded for it. It turned out the wizard was just searching for the right wand. He knew it was in his bag somewhere. And he found it on the 9th, where he eased in a 15ft putt up the hill for his first birdie of the day, rolling it around from left to right.
It had started. At the 10th he added a second, with another sound 12ft putt. These were the kind of strokes that he had been coming close to making all week. Typically they had been leaving him with tap-ins; now, at last, they were rolling home into the hole. At the 13th he sent his second, from out of the trees, into the heart of the green and tidied up with a two-putt. That made it three birdies in five holes. Word spread like wildfire and the crowds came rushing back to him in time to see him recover from a poor approach to the 14th green. There, he lobbed the ball up over the ridge of the green to four feet to save par. Then, at the 15th, there was another birdie. When Woods is playing well, the atmosphere at Augusta is so thick with electricity one expects the stewards to run up the signs warning there is lightning about.
"He couldn't, could he?" Not quite. No. He made par at each of the last three holes, finishing on five under. His penultimate shot of the competition was a chip from the bunker in front of the 18th green that scooted just past the hole and left him one last putt to save par.
If it had gone in and Woods had picked up just one more shot, he would have had even more cause to rue the interview he gave after play was done on Friday, when he admitted to dropping his ball back a couple of yards away from the spot he should have done after putting the ball into the water at the 15th.
That led to a two-shot penalty. He finished three shots shy of the lead as it stood at the time, so the world was spared a lot more moralising. And whichever pedantic member of the public it was who called Augusta National to complain that Woods had broken the rules after watching his interview on TV was denied the satisfaction of knowing that his interference, correct as it was, had help deny Woods his 15th major.
Woods is not the type to rue such things, anyway, especially as in the end he would have needed to be nine under to make the play-off.
Rather he is likely to start Monday with a long conversation with his coach, Sean Foley, to try to iron out the kink in his swing that he cannot seem to shake off. Such waywardness off the tee would have cost almost any other golfer a lot more than it did Woods, simply because there are not many who can match his ability on the approach to the greens. But even for someone with his sweet skills the best way to stay out of trouble is surely not to get into it in the first place.
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image: © Keith Allison