I kept looking at the Masters leaderboard, hoping the numbers would add up eventually. When would Tiger Woods make his move? After Woods bogeyed the fifth hole to fall four strokes off the lead, I wondered: Can Woods make a move?
It was so much fun when that was a given, but that was a long time ago. It didn’t feel like it by the end of the third round Saturday. The things I’d missed were happening now.
Tiger twirling his club, pumping his fist and confidently taking a big step to collect an important putt still heading for the hole. The distinctive Tiger roars from fans at Augusta National. A leaderboard with Woods near the top with one round to go.
Woods shot 5-under par 67 on Saturday. That’s his best round at the Masters since 2005, when he won the last of his four green jackets. Woods is tied for second place with Tony Finau at 11-under-par, two shots behind Francesco Molinari.
Woods in position to win his 15th major championship on Sunday. He can collect his fifth green jacket more than 14 years after winning his fourth. It’s what I wanted to see all along, even as I doubted it could happen.
“You’re right, it’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here,” Woods said. “But, then again, the last two majors count for something.”
Woods finished tied for sixth at the British Open and second at the PGA Championship. Then Woods won the Tour Championship at East Lake, his first tournament victory in more than five years.
Considering that evidence, maybe I should have seen this coming from Woods at the Masters. In my defense, it was hard to tell if his body would hold up. It was difficult to foresee if his game would reach a point that he can win another major — Woods shot 64 in the final round of the PGA but never really threatened to win.
It’s been nearly 11 years since Woods made that iconic putt at Torrey Pines to force extra holes at the U.S. Open. His playoff foe, Rocco Mediate, said he knew Woods would make it. It was a reasonable assumption back then
Woods was 32 years old then and there was a massive gap between him and the next guy. It seemed inevitable Woods would win many more majors. It seemed likely he’d make a serious run at Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.
Then his body and personal life deteriorated. He played just one event from 2016 to 2017. Meanwhile, Woods had birthed generations of PGA Tour golfers in his image: fit, bold, big hitters.
A few members of the first post-Tiger generation went toe-to-toe with Woods and prevailed as he declined. Finau, 24, is from the second generation. So is Brooks Koepka, a three-time major winner who is one shot behind Finau and Woods.
Those young golfers have no first-hand knowledge of Woods foes wilting when he charges and the galleries rumble. It was one element of the phenomenon once known as the “Tiger Effect.”
“The way he dominated and watching him growing up, it was like he was scared of nobody,” Finau said. “So I think a lot of us try to be like him and try to be that way to where nothing on the golf course can scare us and our skills can showcase. I think there’s always still a Tiger effect because it is Tiger, but it’s a different era, and he’s playing against a different generation.
“He’s playing against guys that he kind of bred. We were watching him as teenagers through high school and watching him dominate, and I think all of us relish now having a chance to compete against him.”
There was a time when opponents talking about Woods that was foolhardy because he used it as fuel to fire low numbers they couldn’t match. Now it’s just the truth. Finau showed that Saturday when he sprinted to the top of the leaderboard early.
Finau, playing four holes in front of Woods, tied a course record by shooting a 6-under-par 30 on the front nine. Webb Simpson, three holes ahead of Finau, got hot on the back nine. The galleries at Augusta were eager to erupt for Woods but the roars kept coming from elsewhere.
Woods scored par on the first four holes. He missed long birdie puts at holes one and two. Woods couldn’t convert birdie putts from 15 and 17 feet at the next two holes.
The missed putt at No. 4 teased the edge of the cup. There was anguish in those inches. Staying even meant falling back on this day. And then Woods bogeyed the fifth hole.
Finally, at the sixth hole, Woods signaled he was ready to roll. He twirled his club in his hands as his tee shot sailed to the sixth green. It stuck 18 feet behind the hole. This time Woods made the birdie putt, the first of three in a row.
At the eighth hole, Woods missed an eagle putt that would have tied him with Finau. He made the birdie putt then strung together four consecutive pars. Finau went to the clubhouse with the lead before Molinari surged to the top of the leaderboard and opened a two-shot advantage with four consecutive birdies from holes 12 through 15.
Woods stayed in the chase with three birdies on the back nine. He happily slapped hands with supporters as he made his way off the 18th green. I doubted I would that. I’m glad I did.
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About the Author
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.