He’ll be back in the world’s top 100 tomorrow, having ended last year in 656th spot. That in itself is a sign of how well Tiger Woods has played since he returned to golf pain-free after his back trouble in recent years. He’s still got work to do, though, before he can be regarded as a genuine contender once more in majors.
The 42-year-old described his play so far in the 82nd Masters as “scratchy”. He was speaking after following opening efforts of 73 and 75 with a 72. That preserved his record of never carding three straight rounds over par at Augusta National. It also ended a run of nine consecutive over-par rounds in majors.
On four-over for the tournament, though, Woods will be among the early starters in the final round. That wasn’t what he had in mind teeing off on Thursday. His hopes of pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in sport by claiming a fifth Green Jacket have partly been derailed by a poor return on the par-5s. He used to own those holes, yet is just one-under for them up to now.
“I didn’t play the par‑5s well again and I didn’t hit a lot of good iron shots,” said Woods. “I’m putting so well this week, but I’m not hitting it close enough. I’m not taking advantage of the par‑5s and consequently a good round is even par. It’s been scratchy this week. I just haven’t gotten it done. I feel like I’m driving it better than I have all year, but I am not capitalising on it. And when I did miss I missed in the wrong spots. My swing is just off with my irons just at the wrong time.”
Even though it was a tall order – he’s only played five PGA Tour events since making his comeback following spinal fusion surgery less than a year ago – Woods had felt confident he could get in the mix in his favourite event. His return to Augusta has sent TV ratings through the roof in the US this week, with ESPN revealing a rise of 55 per cent over the first two days on 2017. He’s given golf a huge boost, but it’s just not happened for him this week.
Woods dismissed suggestions that he had had problems with his irons in practice. “That’s why it’s disappointing and a little bit frustrating,” he said. “I was playing well coming in and my practice sessions have been good. But I haven’t been sharp with [the irons] and just have not executed the way that I have been. I know what the problem is, but I’m struggling trying to fix it on the fly and trusting it.”
The centre of attention among the patrons in the morning on an overcast day in Georgia, he found greenside bunkers at the opening three holes as he started bogey-bogey. Birdies at the sixth and eighth repaired that damage. He’d put his tee shot at the 12th in Rae’s Creek on the opening two days. Not this time, though. After safely finding the green, he raised his hands in the air in a mock celebration and lit up Amen Corner with a huge smile.
“How about that?” he said afterwards. “You know, I just couldn’t do it three days in a row. I just couldn’t do it. And I gave it a little bit more gas on it and made sure that I was long if I did miss and I hit a good one in there. I missed the putt, but, hey, you know, that’s a lot easier to play the hole from the green than it is dropping.”
Woods will go away from here and regroup for the US Open at Shinnecock Hills in June before a return to the Open Championship at Carnoustie a few weeks later. “I’m just kind of gradually working on it, gradually building,” he said of his game. “I was pretty far out there [in the world rankings]. but I’m gradually building my way back into it. I’ve had some success in this comeback and I’m getting there. I wish this week would have been a little bit better. Hopefully tomorrow I can shoot something, get me to even par or even in the red, I think that will be a good goal tomorrow and hopefully I can get it done.”
Three-time champion Phil Mickelson will start the final round even further back. He had a fresh air shot in the trees at the first, where he ran up a triple-bogey 7. “I hit the trunk on the down swing,” he said by way of explanation. He bounced back with an eagle-3 at the eighth after hitting a driver off the deck from 271 yards but had to settle for a 74 to sit on seven-over. That wasn’t what he had in mind on Thursday as he set out trying to become the event’s oldest champion at 47.
“It’s just frustrating to be out there playing when you know you don’t have a chance,” said Mickelson, a winner in 2004, 2006 and 2010. “I’m hitting some good shots, but hitting a lot of really bad ones. But it’s always Augusta, you always learn some things. I was taking some notes, there were some new pins there. So I’m kind of doing preparation for next year, I guess.”