AUGUSTA, GA. – It was a strange day at the golf course next to the Olive Garden on Washington Road.
Zach Johnson took a practice swing and accidentally hit his golf ball, sending it off a tee marker. “A 4-foot draw,” he called it.
Jason Day woke up grumbling about his ailing back, had his wife tell him “suck it up,” and shot a 67.
Jon Rahm hit a dead-solid shank into the pine straw. And someone dressed like a security guard and perhaps employed by Tonya Harding performed a textbook sliding tackle on Tiger Woods’ right ankle, and was immediately signed by Minnesota United.
By the end of the second round of the Masters on Friday, five major winners from four countries who have captured the past three majors were tied for the lead at 7 under, but the true international golf story was Woods’ steady rise up the leaderboard. Woods missed a putt on the 18th that would have tied him for the lead but settled for a 4-under-par 68 that left him at 6 under.
Not long ago, his career appeared to be buried that deep. “The last three major championships, I’ve been right there,” he said. “I had the lead at the British Open at one point on Sunday, and I was right there at the PGA.”
Woods’ name on a leaderboard should feel familiar, but the persona attached to that name has changed. Now 43, Woods added gum-chomping to his fist-pumping on Sunday, and walked off the 18th green smiling broadly while fans screamed as if this were the Waste Management Open.
In his prime, Woods acted more like a member of the CIA than the PGA Tour. He stared down opponents and reporters and stalked the course like it was his prey.
Friday night, Woods sounded cheerful and appreciative, and refused to criticize the security guard who slid into him as if he were breaking up a double play. “Accidents happen and you move on,” Woods said. “I’m good.”
ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi asked Woods if he really felt healthy. “Yeah,” he said. “I mean, other than having four knee surgeries and four back surgeries, I’m great. How you doin’?”
Woods hasn’t won a major since he limped around Torrey Pines for five rounds in 2008. He hasn’t won at the Masters since 2005 — the last Masters before this one that was interrupted by weather.
Given his physical ailments, other career disruptions, his bout with chipping yips and the quality of the field, a Woods victory this weekend would rival Jack Nicklaus’ Masters title at 46 in 1986.
“I was very patient,” he said. “I felt very good to be out there doing what I was doing.”
In his prime, Woods dominated the par-5s with his distance and aggressiveness. Now his driver might be his weakness, so Woods relied on iron play and long putts.
He played the four par-5s in even par, and played the other 14 holes in 4 under. Had he sunk shorts putts as he once did, he would hold the lead.
“I missed a few putts out there. but I’m not too bummed out about it because I hit them on my lines,” he said. “I can live with that. I also made some distance putts at 9, 14 and 15.”
A victory would give Woods 15 majors, moving him within three of Nicklaus’ record. His back ailments keep him from practicing the way he used to, so he’s trying to win the way others have won — with feel, patience and grit.
No longer intimidating to his playing partners, Woods will have to overcome a classy leaderboard. The nine players at 6 or 7 under include seven major winners and Xander Schauffele, who shot 65 on Friday. The players one shot behind him are Ian Poulter and Rahm.
The saying goes, “The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”
That’s poetic but wrong. This Masters has been gripping from the ceremonial tee shot on, and Woods is showing that his presence is anything but ceremonial. This weekend, there may be Tiger Roars at Augusta National.