AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods had just birdied three holes on Sunday at the Masters when he stood at the tee box at No. 18. A few of the men sitting around the 17th green did not bother to watch.
This was no charge toward a sixth green jacket. It was the last act of a Sunday unlike any other in Woods’s quarter-century around the Augusta National Golf Club: He shot 76, equal to his worst round at any Masters. Yet that score was a far greater achievement than it, or his tie for 38th place at one under par, would suggest.
“This sport is awfully lonely sometimes,” said Woods, who entered the tournament as its defending champion. “You have to fight it. No one is going to bring you off the mound or call in a sub. You have to fight through it. That’s what makes this game so unique and so difficult mentally.”
Few figures in the game could have pushed on quite like Woods, who appeared intent on salvaging something even if few people were watching. He birdied five of the final six holes and parred the other — a better late showing than the new champion, Dustin Johnson, who finished at 20 under. Summoning the experience that he has judged particularly vital at the Masters, Woods somehow assembled the type of performance that ordinarily would have had the grounds swelling into roars.
But it came only after an indisputably calamitous turn at No. 12, the very hole that Woods used as a springboard to his Masters victory just last year.
Resplendent in his ritual Sunday red, he strode to the hole, a par-3 around Rae’s Creek made even more dazzling this year by the soft colors of autumn after the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement of the traditional April major. He had another tournament’s worth of earned confidence, having made par there in his first two rounds and birdie on Saturday.
Swing. Plop. The ball rolled into the water.
“The wind was off the right for the first two guys, and then when I stepped up there, it switched to howling off the left,” Woods said. “I didn’t commit to the wind, and I also got ahead of it and pushed it, too, because I thought the wind would come more off the right and it was off the left, and that just started the problem from there.”
“From there,” he added, “I hit a lot more shots and had a lot more experiences there in Rae’s Creek.”
From the drop zone: Swing. Hit the green. Roll backward into the water.
Again from the drop zone: The ball stayed dry, but it landed in a back bunker. Then, with Woods’s legs forming part of a quadrilateral over the sand, he hit over the flagstick and into the water. He tried again from the bunker and finally reached the green safely.
A putt just missed. Then, at last, technically a 10th stroke to a conclusion somewhere between merciful and wrenching. He evacuated the hole with a 56 on the day and his worst score on any single hole during his career on the PGA Tour. His gallery, already vastly diminished because of Augusta National’s pandemic precautions, fled, too.
“He had a bit of a disaster on that hole, didn’t he?” said Shane Lowry, who was in Woods’s group. “Look, this is what Augusta is when the wind is up like this. It’s a pity we’re not out there for the full day in this because it would have been a nice chance for some people to shoot good scores and move really far up the leaderboards.”
Woods certainly tried. But there is only so much to do on the last six holes when, even at the start of the day and before the torment at the hole known as Golden Bell, Woods needed the greatest comeback in Masters history if he was to keep his green jacket for another year.
The observers thinned out more. Woods plodded on, invisible on almost all of the scoreboards around the course. No matter.
Birdie. Par. Birdie. Birdie. Birdie.
Then to No. 18, the place that has seen champions go awash in glory. He peered down the 465-yard hole, the last test of a tournament lost.
He drove it to the middle of the fairway, well right of the second bunker. Then came a push onto the green. A nifty putt for birdie earned claps but nothing like a roar.
A reporter asked afterward about his motivation — about whether he worried, at age 44 and with a career of triumph, pain and scrutiny, that it might fade away sometime.
“No matter how hard I try, things just don’t work the way they used to, and no matter how much I push and ask of this body, it just doesn’t work at times,” Woods said. “Yes, it is more difficult than others to be motivated at times.”
But there he had been on Sunday at Augusta, pushing to the finish, assessing the past, talking about the future. Later, he emerged to present the green jacket to Johnson.
On this Sunday, at least, it was someone else’s turn.