Nineteen months ago, Tiger Woods climbed the hill of the 18th hole at Augusta National to deafening roars. There were, perhaps, 10,000 fans there, many incapable of even seeing the green, but wanting to be there all the same.
Cops guarding the ropes clapped. So did the hand-run scoreboard operator. Members of the kitchen staff, and college kids working the gift shop, left their posts to take it all in. Charlie Woods, Tiger’s son, waited in the same patch of turf for a congratulatory hug behind the green where Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, did more than 20 years earlier.
Tiger Woods, at 43, and after a decade of professional slumps and personal tumult, was about to win the Masters. It was marvelous.
On Sunday at Augusta, the scene was very different. Tiger made the same stroll up the 18th, even dropping in a birdie putt, but COVID made the throng of thousands into a few dozen who offered polite claps. The leaders were many holes behind.
Woods was out of the tourney, not good enough on Friday and Saturday to contend in the final round. He was then truly doomed by carding a 10 on No. 12.
With no adoring crowds that hardly care how he scores, just that he is playing and, with such a strange atmosphere surrounding a Masters played in November, his most enduring moment of his 86th competitive round played there will be the meltdown in the middle of Amen Corner.
Or at least it could have been.
From 155 yards out, he bounced his tee shot into Rae’s Creek.
He took a drop, then hit another on the green, only to watch it spin back into the water.
He took another drop and knocked it into the bunker behind the thin green.
Dealing with a horrendous placement in the sand, he squatted like he was practicing yoga, swung and bladed the ball back across the green and back, for a third time, into the drink.
He took a penalty, reattempted the sand shot, stayed dry. He two-putted from there.
Ten, the highest score he has carded in his professional career.
“I committed to the wrong-way wind,” Tiger said afterward on CBS. “The wind was off the right for the first two guys. And then when I stepped up it switched to howl off the left. I didn’t commit to the wind. I also got ahead of it and pushed it too.
“That just started the problem from there,” he continued, breaking into a smile at his own misfortune. “From there I hit a lot more shots and had a lot more experiences there in Rae’s Creek.”
That’s the Masters. Nightmares and dreams, all on the same familiar grounds.
In 2019, it was magical. In 2020, it was maniacal.
Except, Tiger wouldn’t let No. 12 finish him. He wasn’t going to win a sixth green jacket, but he wasn’t going to sulk his way in either. He wasn’t going to let Augusta National beat him.
Even lacking his spirited and loyal cheering section, he dug back down and decided to play some golf.
“This is unlike any other sport,” Tiger said. “You are so alone out there and you have to figure out how to fight, no one is going to pull you off the bump [like a baseball pitcher].”
Now, sitting at 4-over for the tournament and nine over for the round, he stepped up to the 13th and played it perfectly — a well-placed 297-yard drive, on in two and a nice two-putt for birdie.
He used a beautiful chip-and-run on the 15th to birdie another hole. Then on the par 3 16th, he damn near aced it before settling for another bird.
By now he was rolling, Tiger on fire in ways that seem impossible. From the depths of Rae’s Creek to the top of the hill near the clubhouse, he was playing this course as well as he could, carding birdies on Nos. 17 and 18.
With five birdies in the final six holes, he finished one under for the tourney and four over for the day, a more than respectable effort considering what happened on the 12th.
“I did come in,” he said simply.
The only thing missing were the cheers and chills that he has always delivered here. Oh, they would have gone wild for that back-nine run. Oh, the volume would have shaken those Georgia pines.
No, not the same as in 2019, but nearly as good.
If anything, it was peak 2020. The Masters in November. Tiger without a gallery. Guys shooting low in ways that seemed impossible here.
You could focus on what was missing, you could get distracted by all that went wrong, but in doing so, you’d miss all that went right, that sliver of normalcy that everyone craves.
For six holes on Sunday, Tiger Woods played golf as well as he has ever played. It occurred without many witnesses or noise. It was, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless.
Yet it was a lot more than that. A lot.
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