Golf is one of the cruelest and most unforgiving games there is. One moment you could be playing masterfully; the next, you are fishing your golf ball out of a lake. Such was the case for Tiger Woods during Friday's second round at The Masters.
Tiger's round began with him in familiar territory: middle of the pack, having just shot 70 on Thursday and in prime position to make a move in round two. There is no doubt he knew what would need to happen for him to gain on the field. He could make due with another round in the low-70s and hope for leaders Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman to fall back. With any luck and continued steady play, Woods could find himself atop the leaderboard by day's end.
His first birdie of the day came at No. 5, the 455-yard par-4. Following an accurate drive and a solid approach to 25-feet, Woods sank a twisting putt to move to red numbers for the day. He second birdie came at the par-4 No. 7 hole, again sinking a long putt to reach 2-under on the day, 4-under for the tournament. Suddenly, Tiger was two shots off the lead.
Woods' third birdie came one hole later at the par-5 No. 8 hole, leaving him just one shot back from joining the leaders at Augusta.
Then, at approximately 4:59pm EST Friday afternoon, while standing in the left rough on hole No. 10 and thanks to a span of bogies from his peers, Tiger Woods found himself tied for the lead at The Masters.
His game plan was being executed perfectly. Even when he faltered on an approach shot or a slightly wayward drive, Woods' putter remained hot and kept him in the game. It seemed as though the Tiger of years past had returned to Bobby Jones' playground and brought us all along for the ride. We would simply need to sit back, relax and take in what was destined to be another historical performance.
A group of pars and impressive sand saves would follow for Tiger as he appeared to be more comfortable than we've seen in years, even in the midst of a 3-win season. Just prior to stepping onto the tee box of the par-5 No. 15 hole, television commentator and two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange remarked that Tiger was "playing perfectly".
A blocked drive down the right side of the hole left Tiger a difficult second shot from the pine needles. After punching a perfect lay-up down just short of the lake guarding the narrow green, his third shot would be less than 100 yards to a pin tucked a mere ten paces onto the green. Such a shot is about as textbook as a player of Woods' caliber could want.
I've seen some pretty amazing shots in my decade of covering professional golf. Most of them have come from Woods, many at Augusta National. His third shot will unfortunately be remembered for a whole different reason.
Ironically, the short pitch could not have been executed any better. Tiger's three-quarter swing was perfectly on-plane, his contact crisp. But when his Nike golf ball struck the green mere inches from the hole, its inevitable bounce and spin propelled it toward the flagstick, making square contact on the 1.25-inch wide yellow surface. Pure physics took over at this point as the resulting backspin on Tiger's ball rocketed it through the putting surface, off the green, down the steep hill and into the awaiting lake.
Jim Nantz's exclamation of "Oh noooo!" resonated with the thoughts and utterances of any golf fan watching at that moment. It was all Tiger could do to not explode with anger amid the purple azaleas that had bloomed just days prior. In a way, Tiger was speechless at his own misfortune.
"I was pretty pissed," Tiger told Tom Rinaldi following his round.
Golf's difficulty is a quality that tests the greatest golfers on the planet at any time. What separates a good player from a great player is resolve. How does one respond to a situation Tiger now found himself? How would he respond, now laying five and staring a double-bogey dead in the eyes?
As he has done so many times before in his career, Tiger responded the only way he knows how: astonishingly.
After taking his required drop, Woods' fifth shot bounced and spun on the green to no more than a few feet from the hole. Considering the situation, the shot could only have been more perfect had he made it. Personally, I have never seen a better bogey in my life.
(UPDATE That required drop turned out to be extremely controversial, leading to a 2-stroke penalty after speculation that Tiger might even be disqualified. Full coverage of the 'Tiger drop')
Following a second bogey on his final hole, Woods settled for a 1-under 71 for a round he would later admit was "pleasing, all things considered."
"I really swung the club well," Woods said, "and didn't really get a lot out of this round."
Woods now finds himself tied for seventh, three shots behind current leader Jason Day (6-under). He is scheduled to tee-off for his third round -- traditionally coined "Moving Day" -- with Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, the Spaniard who once called Tiger "beatable" prior to this year's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Woods promptly defeated Gonzalo the following day.
The weekend at The Masters is, as the saying goes, a traditional unlike any other. How Tiger will fare on Saturday, quite obviously, depends solely on him. The leaderboard is loaded with names that will make this season's first major memorable, that much is certain.
How well Tiger Woods can continue to execute his blueprint over the next two days remains to be seen. Be prepared for a wild ride.