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Thomas Boswell: Weary Tiger Woods Remains Unbowed

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The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga reports on day one of the Masters at Augusta National.Audio: washingtonpost.comPhoto: Getty Images

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, April 10, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The difference in strain between the weekly PGA Tour pursuit of cash and the emotional wrack of major tournament golf is absolutely enormous. That is the next test for Tiger Woods.

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Two weeks ago, cheers engulfed Woods as he elegantly handled the familiar demands of winning at Bay Hill. Now, he must cope with the demonic torments of the Masters. Normally, Woods handles this transition better than anyone since Jack Nicklaus. And he presumably will again. But will he make the leap to hyper-focus by Sunday night?

As Woods walked off the 18th green at the Masters on Thursday, after botching his last three holes to turn a potential 67 into a frustrating 70, his face looked as tired as it often does on a Saturday evening here at Augusta National. Even Tiger pays a price in mental torment. Golf exempts no one. Woods just copes best.

Low "scores could have been had out there today. I left a couple of shots out there," Woods said as a tsunami of birdies hit the leader board, leaving him in an eight-way tie for 20th place on one of the easiest days for scoring in Masters history.

"What's the problem, Tiger?" Woods was somewhat rudely asked. "You've never shot lower than 70 in the first round" at the Masters.

"Yeah, I've also won it four times," shot back Woods, face flashing back to life.

Still, no one knows as well as Woods how much drama his round contained. After 12 holes, he stood at mundane infuriating even par as the field swept ever lower with Chad Campbell, 9 under par through 15 holes, having a realistic chance to be the first person to shoot a 62 in any major championship. Then, just in time to prevent falling eight or more shots behind the leaders, Woods caught fire with birdies at the 13th through 15th holes. This was, indeed, the Woods who, from the '05 Masters through the '08 U.S. Open won six of 14 majors, plus four runner-up finishes, including two here.

On the final three holes, Woods hit beautiful iron shots flush to eight feet at the 16th and no more than six at the 17th hole. His drive at the 18th left him only a three-quarter eight-iron shot to the green. When Tiger is rust-free and fresh, what does he do with those opportunities? Doesn't he turn them into a birdie or two, plus a par? And show up on the leader board at dusk, perhaps in fourth place with 67, stalking and intimidating his prey? Instead, he missed both birdie putts and made bogey from the 18th fairway.

The Woods we have before us right now, however, has endured 10 of the most grueling months faced by any golfer of the last 50 years. (Ben Hogan, after his car wreck, overcame much more.) Last June, his victory at the U.S. Open was probably the most visceral example of mental toughness in the history of his sport. Then, after playing 91 holes on a broken leg, he spent the next eight months having major reconstructive surgery on his left knee. After that, what seemed like endless rehabilitation and conditioning.

"Anyone that's ever gone through an ACL reconstruction, it wasn't fun," Tiger said here. "A lot of low points and low days. Got to fight through it. That was the challenge." As always, he drove himself to his limit not just every day, but on every exercise. Another Tiger trademark: "Do 10 more."

Right down to his final dramatic winning putt on the 72nd hole at Bay Hill two weeks ago, Woods may have taken more out of his enormous Tiger tank than even he suspects. Or maybe not. This is Tiger. All things are possible for him. Usually.


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