AUGUSTA, Georgia (AP) — The crowd followed him eagerly from hole to hole, still buzzing about what happened the previous afternoon.
Tiger Woods was back, and if anyone needed a reminder all they had to do was look at the giant white leaderboard on the first fairway and see the nine birdies he posted in the second round.
It was all coming together according to plan, after a year when nothing went according to plan. Sure, the youngsters behind him had the lead, but the faithful at Augusta National had seen this act before and they knew it was only a matter of time before order was restored in the game of golf once again.
That was the way they wanted it to happen.
That was the way it always used to happen.
Once again, it didn’t happen.
The enigma that is Tiger Woods was on full display on a hot, steamy day at the Masters, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. This was supposed to be the day he finally put to rest questions about his swing and his mental state, but there were no answers to be had on the finely manicured grasses of Augusta National.
Those who believe Woods is on the verge of being his old self will point to his brilliant shots and the putts that might have been. Those who believe Woods will never be the same will replay video of him blading a chip and missing two putts within four feet, golfing transgressions that the old Tiger would never have committed.
He’s a puzzle who refuses to be solved, headed back to greatness one moment before returning to mediocrity the next. He didn’t need a 64 in the third round to contend on Sunday, but the 74 he shot pretty much ensures he won’t. Seven shots back, with a ton of players between him and leader Rory McIlroy, he’s as done as some of the patrons who baked for hours in the Georgia sun to catch a glimpse of him. There will be no fifth green jacket on Sunday, even if Woods is the last one to figure that out.
Asked if he could still win the Masters, Woods gave a one word answer: “Absolutely.”
Ask almost anyone who watched him play a maddeningly inconsistent round Saturday and they might sum up his chances in two words: “No way.”
Actually, the guy who watched him closer than most in the third round was more charitable. Playing partner K.J. Choi said Woods is hitting good shots and has a nice rhythm to his swing.
“He’s better than where he was last year,” Choi said.
That’s not saying a lot because Woods was miserable most of last year after coming back from his self-imposed exile to struggle with a swing change. Things haven’t been a whole lot better this year, though Woods was hopeful he might find some magic on a golf course he knows intimately with a swing that seems to be coming around.
The 66 he shot on Friday brought back the roars from fans who wanted to believe. Woods himself seemed to believe as he walked off the course just three shots off the lead and with the kind of momentum that would normally make the leaders sleep uneasily.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said.
The fun didn’t last long. Shooting a round to get in contention may not be easy, but shooting a good round once you’re in contention is even harder.
Playing in the second-to-last group, Woods striped a 3-wood down the middle, twirled his club and set off in pursuit of the young upstart McIlroy, who was 7 years old when Woods shocked the golfing world by running away with the Masters by 12 shots.
When he got to the ball, though, it was in the middle of a sand divot. Woods would come back from the ensuing bogey with a birdie on No. 3, but the momentum was gone.
There was a time players like McIlroy would fade at the sight of Woods on the leaderboard. This time, McIlroy could only watch from the group behind as Woods fell off the leaderboard.
“The way he played the last nine holes yesterday, you would expect him to come out and play well,” McIlroy said.
The trouble is, no one knows what to expect from Woods anymore, including Woods himself. He can still hit shots other players can’t, but the ones in between often go sideways and the putts that he could once seemingly will in now slide past the hole or hang on the edge.
About the only thing he’s still consistently good at is cursing — which he did loudly on the eighth green Saturday after flubbing a chip.
He’s 35 now and, though golfers can play well into their careers, he’s facing players in their 20s who show no signs of being intimidated by him. They’re bunched on the leaderboard in front of him now, and even Woods has to know deep down that it would take a miracle round to get past all of them on Sunday.
One fan tried to give him hope as he walked out of the scoring hut off the 18th green after signing his card.
“You’re in this Tiger,” the fan yelled.
Not a chance.