Tiger Woods has lost the Masters crowd. Or perhaps he has just temporarily misplaced them. But they aren’t in his hip pocket anymore, as they were for a dozen years. After an utterly dispirited 74 on Saturday, leaving him in a tie for ninth place seven shots behind 21-year-old leader Rory McIlroy, Woods very much needs to get them back.
The throngs here still like him very much. When he hits an iron shot tight to the stick or goes on a nine-birdie tear like he did in his 66 on Friday, the Augusta National crowd still lets out a roar worthy of any champion.
But when Woods is “merely” in the middle of the leader board, a few shots out of the lead, but not shooting the lights out, he is often accompanied by almost total silence. For more than 50 years, the Masters has anointed a succession of Augusta Kings, none more royally regarded here than Woods. When any of them were in contention, a few shots off the lead on the weekend, as Woods was in the third round, silence was unthinkable. Every step they took, they were adored and implored.
The scene here, however, was much different. When Woods misses putts, and on Saturday he missed every type known to suffering golfus humanicus, he agonizes like a slain lord but the crowd lets out such a tepid moan that, sometimes, you barely hear it.
This isn’t judgment. It is just reportage.
When Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson or the Woods of ’97 through ’09 was in contention, but not yet running hot, they were still surrounded with nonstop weekend electricity. They didn’t need to jolt the crowd. Instead, the patrons of the National injected them all with continuous adulation, energy and advantage, hour after hour. The crowd didn’t yell, “Come on, Jack,” or “Go get ‘em, Tiger.” They bellowed those words, each trying to outdo the person next to them.
Now, we’re at a watershed. Woods began Saturday solidly in third place with only a 21-year-old, McIlroy, and a 23-year-old, Jason Day, ahead of him. The stage was more than set; it was practically gilt-edged in gold.
Saturday is the round at the Masters when Woods had made huge charges in all of his victories to either build a lead or to take control of the event. In ’97, ’01, ’02 and ’05, he burned the place down with Saturday scores of 65, 68, 66 and 65 so that he could conclude matters methodically on Sunday with suffocating consistency: 69, 68, 71, 71.
On this Saturday, however, Woods missed putts on the first two holes of the six- to-10-foot kind that are vital in majors and which, in his long prime, he seldom seemed to miss. Thereafter, Woods rarely seemed energized, except at the 13th and 15th holes when he had eagle putts. The first he left short in the heart. The second he three-putted.
Perhaps his grim expression muted his followers. Maybe a couple of mild curses early in the round signaled that it wasn’t his day. But as he moved from hole to hole, and marched down fairways, there were so few “Let’s go, Tigers,” and “Make a charge, Tiger” that, on the entire front nine, I could count them on fingers and never had to use a toe.
Masters crowds crave a hero. Give them an excuse and they belong to you. But, for the moment, they don’t trust Woods. They are no longer sure they know him as a person. And they are disoriented as to whether they grasp who he is as a golfer, either.
That could change fast if Woods wins another major. Victory is a mirror in which every champion suddenly looks like a handsome prince as well as a great athlete.
But, for now, Woods is close to being in the same boat as the other two dozen or so truly famous golfers in the world. If he gets hot, the crowd can’t wait to join the fun, be part of the event and reshape its opinion, 180 degrees, if need be, to suit the news.
For now, Woods perfectly illustrates the man in the midst of major changes on every front. With his newly rebuilt swing, one day he hits it pure, but the next day, who knows? As for his work on the greens, every morning is a new day for Tiger and his putter. Hello, who are you today?
“Pleased with the way I played,” Woods said. “I just made nothing. I had so many putts early that looked like they were going in but didn’t.”
For a dozen years, a day like Friday, with those nine birdies pouring into the hole, would presage more of the same for the weekend. That was the source of those Tiger Blitzes when he lapped the field with record scores. When he made putts on Thursday or Friday, he never stopped and the weekend landslide built upon itself.
Now, Woods not only has to work on his swing and his private life but that most delicate golf mystery, putting. On tough days, even the greats need help. That’s when you want the crowd to love you, not just like you; hold you in awe, not just hope you get your problems sorted out.
No place provides more of that power-from-the-public than the Masters. The crowds here lift men up, demand their best and beg for a thrill. Such astronomical emotional demands don’t help every player. Some fold. But champions feed on it. And miss its absence.
For golf’s sake, as well as Woods’s, one would hope that this tepid kind of romance — mere handholding by Augusta standards — is a temporary state of affairs.
One day could change it, one Sunday at a major — but probably not this major. Because this was moving day and once again, Tiger Woods didn’t budge.