AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is a monster of many parts. But the beautiful beast is defined, most of all, by her diabolical undulating lightning greens, 18 creatures that seem to change in speed, texture and disposition from year to year and even from day to day.
Just because the Augusta National greens have loved you once, or in Tiger Woods’s case four times, doesn’t mean they’ll love you again. Your stroke and nerves change a bit with the years. The rain, the growing season, who knows what, gives those greens a slightly new nature over time.
Woods will figure out these Augusta National greens over the next three days, something he has consistently failed to do over the previous seven Masters, or his quest to complete one of golf’s most riveting comeback stories — from 58th in the world to major champion again — will fizzle.
Why Woods and the Masters greens, which seemed a perfect match in ’97, ’01, ’02 and ’05, have been on the outs for so long is a mystery. But after Thursday, they remain so.
Once more, Woods floundered with the flat stick here on Thursday, not making a putt longer than six feet and using his putter 34 times, including putts from the fringe.
At the 14th and 15th holes, when he was near the top of the leader board at 3 under par, he faced a pair of seven-foot putts, the kind of Masters-length testers that so often define the next green jacket winner.
Woods misread or mishit both, missing low left by two inches each time. His first-round 70, on what he called “a benign day” for scoring, left him in a tenable but worrisome 10-way tie for 13th place.
Tiger is right that he shot a “good solid round” and that he’s “right in it.” Three of his four wins here have come after opening 70’s. But the tale of Tiger and the Masters has, for many years, not been about injuries or swing changes, personal drama or new caddies and coaches.
It’s been about his dad-gum putting after he drives up Magnolia Lane. By his own admission here this week, he would have won a couple of more Masters “absolutely” except that he “just didn’t make enough putts.”
In recent years, Woods has had many problems of many kinds, except at the Masters. Here, he has the same problem, his stormy romance with the greens that once adored him. Year after year, no matter the state of his game, he has a chance to win. And putting has usually decided if he would. The results, please: a third, second, second, sixth, fourth and fourth.
As Woods’s good friend Steve Stricker said, “Everything about this course is suited for his game. So, yes, it’s surprising [he hasn’t won since ’05].”
Ironically, Stricker is one of the world’s best putters and the man who ignited Woods’s recent spring hot streak with a tip in Orlando that helped send Woods to his best putting week ever — 100 putts in 72 holes.
For generations, golfers have found that what works on the PGA Tour does not necessarily translate to the Masters greens. After this round, Tiger grumbled that the speed of the greens wasn’t right. They looked fast. They putted slowly.
“The greens were a little bit tough in the sense that they just didn’t have the sheen to them, they didn’t have the roll out. A couple of putts . . . just weren’t that fast,” said Woods, noting that his playing partners left putts short, too. “The biggest challenge was just the speed of the greens. They just weren’t quite there. They looked it, but just weren’t quite putting it.”
Every golfer recognizes this syndrome: it’s not the fault of the greens. They are what they are. “They” do not have a problem of not being “quite there” where you think they should be. You have to adjust to them.
If Woods makes that adjustment, as he has many times and in many places, the rest of his game began clicking by the fifth hole after a loose start that forced him to get up-and-down from beside the greens at Nos. 2, 3 and 4.
Woods knows the nature of his problem. It has nothing to do with complex swing technique. It has little to do with karmic balance or the presence of his girlfriend Lindsey Vonn, the legendary skier, who walked up part of the first hole, her leg in a brace from her skiing accident in February. It’s the same old problem that he talked about here just two days ago.
“I was ‘there’ ball-striking-wise a few years through that stretch [’06-’12]. I hit a lot of greens but just didn’t make enough putts. I was there on Sunday and just didn’t get it done,” Woods said. “As we all know, you have to putt well here. You have to make a lot of putts.
“The person that theoretically didn’t really put well was Vijay Singh; when he won, he hit more greens than anybody ever hit to do it,” Woods added. “Generally, you have to make your putts — the majority of the putts inside 10 feet. And you’ve got to be just a great lag putter for the week.”
The world of golf, with few exceptions, hopes Woods recovers his touch here. As Paul Azinger said recently, “Tiger may be the greatest putter ever.”
More than any sport, golf has never prospered without at least one dynamic dominant superstar. Parity is a rarity to be despised. When the game lacks at least one vivid protagonist, even if he is a flawed one, it practically gasps for air outside of its core of devoted fans.
At the moment, Rory McIlroy (72) may be a bit too young and Phil Mickelson (72) a bit too old for the job. So, the central fascination here becomes Woods, whose gallery was far larger than either Rory’s or Phil’s.
The throngs around Woods were not typical of the Masters, calling out cheerfully, “Go, Arnie (Jack/Tom/Shark/Tiger).” They were supportive, but as serious and businesslike as Woods himself who was so fiercely contained that he never showed joy or irritation during his whole round.
Woods is almost back to golf’s mountaintop, but not quite. The last climb, winning another major championship, is like the Hillary Step near Everest’s peak, a special treachery saved for last.
That slippery spot, for Woods, will be on the short grass. Watch him putt from four to 12 feet. Those are the ones that usually decide the Masters. Just as important, Woods firmly believes that they do. If those putts start to drop, Tiger’s final climb back to the summit of his sport will be underway.
For more from Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.