Published April 11, 2010
AUGUSTA, Ga. – "Oh, Tiger ... Woods! You suck! Goddammit!"
Finally, a rowdy fan calling out golf's fallen star?
No, the words were uttered in exasperation by the man himself, on the sixth tee during a roller-coaster ride that was part of maybe the most exciting Saturday ever at the Masters.
It was a day of thrills and spills -- highlighted by Phil Mickelson's back-to-back eagles on 13 and 14 -- but Woods needed more thrills and less spills.
It's not often Woods makes seven birdies in the third round of a major and loses ground.
He'd lose his temper again, cursing too on the next hole -- an errant shot which would lead to one of his five bogeys -- though later he had no recollection of either incident.
"Did I? If I did, then I'm sorry," Woods said.
Not as sorry as he was about the desertion of his game, which went AWOL when he needed it most.
Woods knows that winning is the universal solvent.
Coming back from five months of tabloid nightmares to win the Masters would be just the tonic he needs and maybe even manage to shut up Gloria Allred.
And he had his chance on a day when the fire-breathing Augusta National greens weren't as spicy as usual and the pins were in more benign locations.
But Woods figured out on the range beforehand that he was in trouble.
He'd not been playing well earlier in the week but somehow got his game together for the first two rounds. But early Saturday afternoon, he was missing shots to the right and left, and had no obvious solution.
Interestingly, these were the same swing demons which haunted him over the weekend at last year's Masters, where he afterward angrily spoke of "Band-Aiding it" around the course.
But Woods betrayed nothing of his struggles early in his round. His birdie on the first hole was vintage Woods, the putt hanging on the lip for dramatic effect before dropping into the cup, bringing his comeback's first fist pump.
He'd gotten to within a shot of Lee Westwood's lead after a lucky birdie on the third -- he hit the putt far too hard but it disappeared into the cup anyway -- to get to eight under par for the tournament.
But after bogeying the 10th, Woods had fallen seven shots behind the Englishman and the mercurial Mickelson.
It was only Woods' indefatigable spirit that overcame his bad swings and sudden cluelessness on the greens.
He clawed his way to a two-under-par 70 and will play in the penultimate group Sunday, alongside Korean K.J. Choi for the fourth straight day.
The pair -- who have recorded the same scores each round -- are tied for third, four shots behind Westwood and three adrift of Mickelson.
"I was fighting it all day," Woods said later.
"My warmup wasn't very good. I was struggling there. Two-way miss and three-putting every other green. I really struggled with the pace of the greens and was fighting my swing. It was a tough day."
As is his wont, he was looking on the positive side of the experience. He made four birdies coming home against a lone bogey, at the crucible that's the 17th.
"It was nice," he said, "The guys were running away from me there; at one point I was seven back, so to kind of claw my way back in there where I'm only four back right now, I'm in good shape."
Woods will have to come from behind to win a major for the first time. The task isn't beyond him, though it won't be easy given the fact that under Billy Payne's stewardship the Masters has been a shootout on Sundays.
"Normally you're not going to have four great days," said Woods. "I've played golf long enough where I've never had four great rounds in a row. One day is always going to be your off day, and on your off day if you can keep it under par it's always a good sign, and I did that today."
Inevitably, Woods was asked whether the emotional burdens of the past five months, plus his disintegrating marriage, may have taken their tolls on his mental focus on Saturday.
"It's fine," he said. "That's never a problem."
When his questioner tried to pursue the same line of questioning again, Woods cut him short.
It's not a problem."
It's just as well -- he's got enough as he tries to win major 15.