Tiger Woods never stood a chance at the Masters, despite the widespread thought that he was back following his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago. Considering his performance this week at Augusta National, those two weeks seem like an eternity ago, in a different world and with a different Tiger Woods. Then, Woods built his lead early and put away the field with a final-round 70, cruising to a five-shot win. Now, he can't even hit a tee shot, let alone make a run at The Masters.
He may still pull it together and post a strong number, just like he did last year. It won't matter. Not with 12 shots to make up, and not after he shot himself in the foot repeatedly over the first three rounds. With excellent scoring conditions over the first three days at Augusta, Woods couldn't even manage a round under par.
A look at his numbers clearly show the problem. He hit just 25 of 42 fairways (59 percent) and 32 of 54 greens (59 percent). Over the first three days, Woods struggled to get the ball in play off the tee, let alone in the right position to fire at flags. And when he did manage to put his ball in the short grass, there was no telling where his approach might land -- the gallery, the sand, almost everywhere except in a good position to make a putt.
Augusta National is a cruel beast, one that punishes players who stray from the fairway or land an approach on the wrong part of the green. Ball striking is always at a premium, and without solid drives and iron play, a player can kiss his chances goodbye. Every player in the field has had to scramble at times -- as is the nature of The Masters -- but Woods has been scrambling since his tee shot on No. 1 in the first round.
And what about those par fives, the holes Tiger has dominated throughout his career? Woods has carded just one birdie -- on No. 8 during his first round. He's stepped onto the tee on a par-5 12 times, birdying just that one while writing down pars for the rest. At Augusta National, where the long holes provide players ample opportunity to pick up strokes, Woods has been unable to muster anything at all.
For comparison, Phil Mickelson is 5-under on the par-5 13th alone. He's birdied No. 15 in every round this week, and finished with a three on the par-4 18th in each round, as well. Woods playing the par fives at only 1-under for the week is almost unfathomable.
The back nine, which is built for players to make a run, despite the menacing nature of Amen Corner, has been a riddle Tiger has been unable to solve this week, and it shows on his scorecard. For the week, Woods is 4-over on the back, with only one birdie -- during his first round on No. 10 -- to show for his efforts. Even after triple-bogeying No. 10 on Thursday, Mickelson is 9-under on the back, doing all of his damage on the final nine holes.
Unable to hit a decent tee shot or approach, Woods did what he's done all week, throw clubs, yell at himself and scramble around the course in hopes of just making par. As a result, for the second time in three days, he signed for an even-par 72 when his third round mercifully came to a close.
This time though, after professing he was heading to the driving range to work out the kinks following his first two rounds, Woods threw in the towel. The driving range could wait and the swing adjustments could be put off until after The Masters was over. He was headed back to where he was staying, done on the course as the leaders were just beginning.
Maybe this was what he should've done all along. All the work in the world on the driving range at Augusta had no impact on his game when it mattered. All he did was wear himself down, something he admitted after Saturday's round. Staying out on the course by himself and pounding golf balls until he was blue in the face wasn't going to magically cure his problems anyway.
No matter what happens on Sunday, it's back to the drawing board for Woods, back to figuring out what's gone wrong and how to fix it. A strong finish isn't necessarily something to build off of -- after all, we've seen him power through a meaningless final round of a tournament, only to falter again a short time later. Fizzle out, finish over par yet again, and it only puts an end to his misery at Augusta this week.
Going back to the drawing board has been a recurring theme as he struggles to piece together his swing, his game and his life after everything came crashing down at once some two years ago. For a man who's been able to emphatically answer any questions about his on-course abilities throughout his career -- from his "Hello, world" moment on -- Tiger finds now himself continuously spinning his wheels.
Questions about whether he can find his form again, much less break Jack Nicklaus' record for major championship wins, have persisted, lingering without an answer from a man who was once golf's most imposing figure. A man who once walked the fairways as if he owned every course he's stepped on has been reduced to throwing clubs and grinding out pars like a middle-of-the-pack player.
Tiger's chance to show something -- anything -- at Augusta National is long gone. His chance to answer the critics passed by as he kicked, screamed and cursed his way through the first three rounds. With two months until his next big test, at the US Open, the year's second major, Tiger has plenty of time to figure out what's wrong with his game, and his head, before stepping onto a big stage again.
But instead of answering the critics and silencing the doubters, Woods has created more questions by falling apart on golf's biggest stage, and the doubts in his own mind may be bigger than those of observers after a dismal showing at The Masters.