Now that Michael Jordan's era is down to days, no one in sports has half the star quality of Tiger Woods. Friday, he played golf for nine hours at the Masters. For 28 holes, he was 2 over par, a stance relative to Old Man Par that left him behind 22 other players and, in fact, eight shots behind leader Mike Weir. Yet Woods might as well have been almost the only player on Augusta National. The first round and most of the second round was about only two subjects: Tiger's Try for Three in a Row and Everyone Else.
On a day when his total performance could hardly have been more mundane, Tiger was easily the more interesting of the two. At various times, he sulked, he shivered, he dug his chilled hands deep in his pockets as he plodded through the sodden muck. He terrified the wildlife with wild drives into the pines. Most of all, he missed two-pace putts and agonized as he fell 10 shots out of the lead.
All that happened in just the late morning and early afternoon as Woods shot 76. How bad is a 76 to start the Masters? No player has ever opened with worse than 75 and won here. And only one (Craig Stadler in '82) ever surmounted a 75. How bad is an 11-way tie for 41st place after 18 holes? No one has ever come back from worse than 31st place to win (Ian Woosnam in '91). All those Hogans, Sneads, Nelsons, Nicklauses and Watsons never did it. Shoot 76 to start here and you're dead meat. And so it may still prove to be. Woods opened with a 75 in '00 and, hard as he fought, he ended fifth.
Still, whatever happens, Woods will almost certainly monopolize the drama. Can Tiger make the greatest of all Masters comebacks? Actually, he's already started. All afternoon and until dusk, as the day turned from miserable-and-raw to brisk-but-delightful, Woods battled to regain his form, especially on the greens. Finally, after leaving Amen Corner for the second time, he made his first birdie of this marathon -- a tap-in at the easy par-5 13th hole.
To Woods, anything will suffice to ignite the fires within him that make him so different. He immediately birdied the 14th and 16th holes, the latter with a delicate twisting 18-foot downhill putt. With three birdies in four holes, he was grinning again, beaming to the galleries and congratulating his star-struck playing partner, U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes.
"I didn't hit the ball all that bad. I just didn't make any putts," said Woods of his opening 76. "And I had a couple of bad breaks. Someone didn't rake the bunker right at No. 2. At No. 5, I hit my ball in some hole."
By nightfall, all that early misery was forgotten. "I'm right where I need to be. I have a chance in the tournament. At the end of [the second round] I wanted to be even-par or under par," Woods said. With eight holes of the second round left on Saturday morning, starting with No. 2 in his case, there's plenty of time to meet his goal.
"This day was tough mentally and physically . . . winds gusting . . . mud on the ball on six shots. But everybody has to play in the same conditions. And it favors anybody who's hitting it long and straight," said Woods who'd found just such a groove by sundown.
When you have star power like Tiger's, everything is theater, every failure merely a preamble to a more glorious redemption. For example, on his first hole of the day, Woods made a bogey that may be remembered more than any other shot this day. He missed the green in regulation. He chipped horribly all the way across, and off, the other side of the green into a deep swale. His next pitch was worse, rolling back almost to his feet. If he pitched up and two-putted, as most would, he faced a triple bogey.
"I'd had so much practice pitching [on the hole already], I figured, 'I'll just pitch it in.' " So, on a shot almost identical to the one he'd just flubbed, Woods knocked the ball in the hole from 35 feet.
You can't gain charisma at the Woods or Jordan level by practice or pluck. You can't switch club makers or use a ball with hexagonal dimples and stumble into it. Star quality drips off you. It attaches itself to every mood. Woods wasn't just down in the dumps during the hideously slow six-hour first round; he was gloriously, magnificently down in the dumps. You saw him and said, "Look, Tiger is down in the dumps. Have you ever seen a genius so frustrated, an artist so off his feed? Won't it be something when, before this miserable day in a glorified Georgia hog pound is finished, he will do all sorts of wonderful things and end up pumping his fist?"
Most of all, it doesn't seem you can acquire what Woods has between his ears from a sports psychologist. The three players ranked behind him in the world all have them. Little good it did Erne Els or Davis Love III, who opened with 79 and 77, respectively.
How can you have star power -- or compete against it -- if everybody knows your inner secrets? Els discusses how his golf shrink helps him get rid of "a little man" who often sits on his shoulder and prompts him to take silly gambles or suddenly lose confidence. Phil Mickelson has unveiled his 117th "new mental attitude" this week, which appears to involve avoiding mention of Woods's name, whom he refers to repeatedly as "another individual."
Arnold Palmer, 73, may have given the final word on golf psychology here this week. Like Woods, who got his toughness from his Green Beret dad, Arnie got his grit from his old man.
"My psychologist was my father and he never went to college," said Palmer. "He said, 'Be tough, boy. Play your own game and if you listen to anyone, you're not too smart. If you start listening to other people when you're out there, I have a job pushing a lawn mower here at Latrobe Country Club. You can come back and do that.' "
Here at the Masters, everybody listens to everybody and watches everybody else. Especially if that somebody is Tiger. Player after top player, even major champions, talks about how to "ignore him" or cope with him or "take your game to another level" to beat him.
Woods never talks about them, never watches their scores or cares what they think. Whether eight strokes behind or eight ahead, his eye is always on the prize. And so, our eyes are always on him.