AUGUSTA, Ga. – For the better part of two hours Sunday, he was that Tiger Woods again.
The one who boomed drives off every tee box, threw darts at flags stuck in the toughest spots on golf's toughest greens and pulled in spectators from every corner of Augusta National the way a magnet gathers iron shavings. For a while, anything still seemed possible.
Woods birdied three of the first five holes and in quick succession, the par-3 sixth and long par-4 seventh, then hit a fairway metal nearly 280 yards from the fairway on the par-5 eighth to 8 feet. He rolled that one in for eagle.
Woods finished each of the first three rounds of the Masters saying that all he needed to win this thing was a good start. And now, two hours after turning for home following a blistering 31 on the front nine — and a tie for the lead at 10-under — that was all it turned out to be.
"It was a nice little run there," Woods said after posting a final round 67, still hoping for a spot in a playoff that never happened.
It was nearly 6 p.m., by the time Woods walked off the 18th green, the sun already dipping low in the sky. A half-dozen pairs, including eventual winner Charl Schwartzel, were still out on the course. He was watching a TV in the second-floor locker room of the Augusta National clubhouse, polishing off a sandwich brought in by an attendant, when the telling moment arrived. Woods' caddie, Stevie Williams, leaned back in a chair and exhaled, then got up and started peeling off his Masters coveralls. He wouldn't need them until next year.
There was a time when Woods' name bubbled up atop the leaderboard here and you might as well send the rest of the field home. Back then, his rivals' knees buckled or their nerves frayed, causing them to attempt shots they didn't have. Woods still scares opponents, to be sure, just not the way he did once. His last chance to do that came at the par-5 15th, after rocketing a long iron onto the green and within 5 feet of the cup. Instead, this eagle try slid past the hole on the right.
A tap-in birdie left Woods still tied for the lead. But he came home with three straight pars, leaving his fate in the hands of the dozen guys behind him still jockeying for position, something he rarely did before.
Someone asked Woods if he could take back one shot and hit it again, which one would that be.
"We can't do that. We do that every week and we would go crazy," he said, "wouldn't we?"
But nobody else gets do-overs, either, and this week was as close to one as anybody gets. Woods returned to Augusta National a year ago after falling farther faster than most of us thought possible. The tentative applause when he returned to competition last year was replaced by full-throated roars as Woods shot himself back into contention Friday, the galleries a dozen deep, urging him on the same way they had in his salad days. For all that, he only managed to move up one spot, from a tie for fourth to a tie for third this time around.
Plenty of things have changed in that span, yet for all the changes that have been made public since, the one thing Woods likely would most want back is strictly professional. The man simply can't putt the way that Tiger Woods could, let alone at the biggest moments in the biggest tournaments. He was flawless inside 6 feet and deadlier than everybody else from 15; now he's just about average.
Not surprising, the hinge for the round of 66 on Friday that catapulted Woods into contention was his putter, which he needed just 26 times. When Woods talks now about how much better he is hitting the ball since retooling his swing, he's right. And Sunday's 67 could have been so much better, if only because he needed 30 putts. He wrote off a missed a par-save at No. 12 as a "pull" and that missed eagle at No. 15 as a "block."
"I should have shot an 3- or 4-under on the back," Woods conceded, "and I only posted even."
Even the most technically oriented golf teachers will admit that putting is, at its root, a mental exercise. Woods has tried switching the same model of putter he used early all his golfing life and recently switched styles, from a blade to a mallet. None of them has helped him close the gap.
Plenty of self-appointed coaches watching on TV and more than a few pros have offered advice on how Woods could, or should do that. Nearly all of it has been focused on those few inches on either side of the golf ball. More likely, though, the problem with his putting still resides somewhere squarely between his ears.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org