Rear mirror: Tiger closer than appears

April 09, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Here's what Tiger Woods had to overcome as he made his way around Augusta National in the third round of the Masters yesterday:

A rain delay at the worst possible time.

A hacker's drive that dropped on a green in front of him.

His own inability to get going in a tournament he was heavily favored to win.

That he overcame it all and shot a 68, moving him in front of all but five golfers, sent a clear message to those ahead of him:

Guys, better keep an eye on that rearview mirror today.

"I was watching TV and I heard some people say I was completely out of it," said Woods, who started the day nine shots out and finished six shots behind leader Vijay Singh. "I didn't really appreciate that. I'm not completely out of it."

You could argue that he's never out of it, completely or otherwise, since he has already made last-round comebacks from seven and nine strokes down as a pro.

Compared to that, six strokes in the last round of the unpredictable Masters is nothing. Greg Norman gave that back in between bites of a sandwich a few years ago.

True, Woods needs to shoot another 68 today, and that won't be easy with forecasters calling for cool, blustery conditions. Still, it'd be foolish to expect less than a top round.

"If you watched me today, I really did play good," said Woods, who made four birdies in a row and six overall in the last 12 holes.

He was on the verge of falling out of contention -- yes, completely -- when he bogeyed the third hole and drove his tee shot off the green on the par-3 fourth. Another bogey would have left him at 5-over for the tournament, almost extinct. But he saved par with a nifty chip and finally took off three holes later.

"The save at [No. 4] was the key to the round," Woods said.

As is his custom, once he got hot, he got extremely hot, delivering birdies at Nos. 7-10. When the last putt dropped, he pumped his fist and the gallery's roar echoed through the Georgia pines. (Adjusting his grip helped his putting, he said, after he'd struggled in the first two rounds.)

But after he teed off at No. 11, shooting for his fifth straight birdie, play was halted because of an impending storm. Woods retreated to the clubhouse, ate lunch, waited out the rain and hit his second shot on No. 11 some 125 minutes after his first shot. So much for momentum.

"I wasn't very happy," Woods said, "but the good news was I didn't have to start [back after the delay] on No. 12."

The 12th hole is Augusta National's most infamous piece of treachery, a par-3 over the water where careers are made and lost every year. Woods cleared the water with his iron after warming back up with a par on No. 11.

But that's when things got weird. As Woods lined up his second shot on No. 12 from just off the green, another ball landed on the green -- splat -- as if it had just dropped from the sky.

What was it? Some weekend warrior's extremely errant tee shot on the ninth hole at Augusta Country Club, which lies next to Augusta National and is separated only by a grove of trees at several points.

"Some guy at Augusta Country Club just sprayed one," Woods said. "It was right out of `Caddyshack 2.' "

A marshall picked up the ball and pocketed it, and Woods got back to business as the hacker drove up in a cart on the other side of the trees.

"I never saw the cart or heard anything," Woods said. "I think the guy was too embarrassed to come and get his ball."

Uh, probably.

Woods then chipped within 6 feet and sank the par putt, overcoming a distraction again. He then made two more birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 before stalling at the end with a missed birdie putt on No. 16 and a bogey on No. 17.

Still, no golfer made up more ground during the round.

"Anyone from eight to 10 shots [behind] can win," Woods said. "It's happened. You just need to have one of those magical days."

He actually had one yesterday in between the rain and the hackers. He started his round tied for 39th and finished tied for 10th, then rose to a tie for sixth without hitting another shot as the leaders vainly fought the cold and gusting winds that moved in after the rain.

"That [was] a bad afternoon to play golf," said Davis Love, who played behind Woods in an early grouping and also shot a 68 and landed in a tie for sixth.

Singh is in control, of course, although darkness ended his third round prematurely and he still has to play the last four holes this morning before he can start thinking about the final round.

But Masters history tells us a three-stroke lead heading into Sunday is nothing, and Woods' history tells us a six-shot deficit is no problem for the world's top golfer if he's on his game at all.

"I just wanted to be back in the tournament," Woods said.

He's in more than that. He's in the rearview mirror.

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