At 2.30 in the afternoon, Tiger Woods walked up on to the crest of the ridge that stands on the 2nd fairway.
It is a high spot and once you reach it Augusta National unfolds in front of you, spreading out beneath your feet as though the designers, Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, had thrown it out like a picnic blanket across the countryside. Woods stood alone, staring down at the green, silhouetted against the sky, a master surveying his domain. His next shot was superb. It landed just in front of the right bunker. The one after that was better still. A chip that came to a stop four feet from the hole. A putt, a birdie and Augusta erupted.
On Tuesday, back when no one really knew what shape his game was in, and some even reckoned that he had the yips, Woods explained what it was he loved about playing here. “Out there, it’s just a player and a caddie and that’s it,” he said. “Inside the ropes, it’s really just us. There’s something very special about it.” For 60 minutes or so, it really did feel like Woods had the run of Augusta to himself. For that little period he played the kind of golf that won him four titles here. As Woods put it, he “got it going”, and for a time it seemed he was going to make a run at Jordan Spieth’s lead. “I had my chances to make this a really special round today,” Woods said. “I had, man, I had it going there for a little bit.”
The clues were there on the 1st. Woods, to the delight of the gallery, had been paired with Sergio García. It was two years ago that they had their contretemps at the Players’ Championship, when Woods called García “a whiner”, and less time still since García made what he later described as a “silly remark” about how he was going to have Woods over to dinner so he could serve him some “fried chicken”. No sense pretending otherwise, and neither did, they dislike each other. Perhaps the rivalry is good for Woods. It is true that in the last nine rounds he has played with García he has had the better of him every time.
“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you,” as the old song goes. García swung so hard at his first drive that he almost threw himself out of his shoes. Woods settled for something shorter, and straighter, right down the middle of the first fairway. And there was the first hint of what was to come. He made par. But you wouldn’t have known it. He cursed himself and swung his putter in frustration. A clue there, too, for anyone watching closely. He obviously had high expectations for the round.
At the 3rd, Woods and García had hit their tee shots to similar spots. Only Woods’, a yard further over, was in the second cut. On a sprinkler head, in fact. He took a drop, then unfurled a spectacular pitch. The ball fell 12 inches from the pin for a tap-in. At the 4th, glory be, another birdie. Made by a tee shot so good that it left him a tap-in he took so quickly that most of the gallery did not even see him do it. He immediately stalked off towards the next tee box, leaving García behind him, floundering around in a bunker.
That was Woods’ third birdie in a row. He was starting to flow. This was the best golf he had played here since his final round in 2011 when he shot 67. And given the state of his game earlier this year,and the two-month lay off he took before the tournament, it was shaping up to be one of the most remarkable rounds of his career. Woods has spent all week tightening up his game, making minor adjustments, turning the screws fast till he had it all working smoothly. At the par-three 6th another astonishing tee-shot left Woods needing to make a five-foot putt for yet another birdie. And … he missed it. Same story at the 7th. A drive straight down the middle. A superb shot into the green. And a putt that slid just by. Two birdies gone begging. He was just beginning to come back to earth.
At the 8th Woods picked up another shot. But at the 9th those tightened screws started to loosen. His drive was wild and went left into the second cut. He managed to pull off a 12-foot putt to save par. There were three more of those as he came into and around Amen Corner. And then, at the par‑five 13th, came what must be one of the greatest birdies he has made here. “Stupidly good,” Woods said. He shanked his drive 180 yards low to the left, into the trees. His club flew from his hands in his follow through and he turned the air as blue as García’s strides. The broadcasters had to apologise in case anyone watching was offended. But Woods punched his way out on to the fairway, hit his approach to the left of the flag, just on the edge of the green. And then he made a 10-foot putt.
But that wonky drive seemed to have knocked him out of rhythm. At the 14th he was in the trees again. This time he followed a long chip with three putts, the second of them eight feet short. “Stupidly bad”. His first bogey, balanced by a birdie at the next. But he dropped another shot at the last, taking two putts to get down after splashing out of a bunker. He finished four under. On Sunday, he says he will be looking to shoot “30 or 31” over the front nine. If he makes a couple of those short putts, he might just do it. What a week he has had, what a player he is.
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