Augusta: The ball had rolled off the green at 14, into the thick fringe and right up to the feet of a young boy and girl. The late-afternoon sun hung low over the tops of the pines, almost directly in their eyes, and so they hadn`t seen the ball until it was literally almost in their laps. As the course marshal ushered them out of their seats and away from the ball, their eyes widened. Tiger Woods, who at this moment was leading the Masters, was approaching.
Woods didn`t pay attention to the gallery around him; his eyes were focused on the green, which from his vantage point tilted like a table with a phone book under one leg. He set his feet, drew back his club, and … a photographer`s shutter clicked.
"Are you kidding me?" Woods sighed, stepping away from the ball and staring daggers into the crowd.
A deep breath, a re-set of position, and Woods neatly chipped to within a few feet for an easy par. No big deal in the grand scheme of the round, but this was exactly the kind of hole that, in recent years, could have derailed Woods` entire day, if not his entire weekend. This time, though, he worked with adversity rather than merely griping about it, and the result was a reasonable 1-under round to leave him at 3-under for the tournament and three strokes out of the lead. It could have been better, yes, but it could have been so much worse.
Fans and haters alike had plenty to work with on this day. Woods came into Friday in typical Augusta position: rolling off a decent but unspectacular Thursday round. In his 18 previous appearances at Augusta, he`s averaged a 72.1 in the first round. Thursday, he carded a respectable 70.
It`s the middle two days of the tournament where Woods really gets rolling; he averages 70.6 on Friday and 69.9 on Saturday. And for those hoping for Woods to capture his first Masters since 2005 – and his first major of any vintage since 2008 – Friday provided a perfect example of why Tiger might just run away with this thing after all. It`s got nothing to do with "Destiny" or "Fortune" or any of those other amorphous concepts that could double as dancers` names; it`s simply the fact that when he`s focused, Woods can play within himself in a way that allows him to both gain ground and minimize damage.
Consider the 15th hole. Just after saving par from the fringe, Woods had a perfect chance at a birdie and an opportunity to open up some space on the field. But his approach was too good, hitting the flagstick and ricocheting into the water. It was one of the roughest breaks Woods has ever suffered at Augusta, and you could understand if he slipped off the track and put up a double-bogey or worse.
Only he didn`t. His follow-up approach landed within two feet of the hole, an easy tap-in to stop the bleeding. A sand save on 16 later, and Woods entered the home stretch looking like he`d end up no worse than one stroke off the lead.
But Tiger sits three strokes behind leader Jason Day, in part because of a late lapse in concentration on 18. He three-putted the hole and walked to the clubhouse knowing he`d let a crucial stroke slip away.
"I really swung the club well and didn`t really get a lot out of the round," he said. "Granted, these conditions were tough. It was swirling all over the place. I got a wrong gust on 12, I almost hit it in the TV tower. … It`s tough out there."
The leaderboard around Woods isn`t necessarily a terrifying one, but it`s solid enough. The players alongside and ahead of him have won a grand total of four majors – two by Angel Cabrera and one apiece by Fred Couples and Jim Furyk.
And there are plenty of hungry challengers right on Tiger`s Nikes; Rory McIlroy is but a stroke back, and Steve Stricker and trendy Masters favorite Matt Kuchar are within striking distance as well. If Woods is going to win his fifth green jacket – and history suggests he`s still in a very good position to do so – he`ll have to outdistance every other player in the world top five, and all but two of the world top 10.
"There`s a long way to go," he said Friday. "We got 36 holes, and this is a tricky test."
He`s good enough to beat anybody at Augusta. But is he still good enough to beat everybody? We`re about to find out.