PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – "Is Tiger going to make the cut?"
That was the question floating around The Players Championship all afternoon. At first the answer was, "nope," then "definitely." But really, the answer isn't nearly as important as the fact that this question was being asked for a second week in a row.
Is Tiger going to make the cut? Seriously? Here's a guy who once went more than seven years without missing a cut. He could have played the final hole of some major tournaments holding the clubface and striking the ball with the grip and still won. Here's a guy most people thought was the greatest golfer who ever lived, and now he's fighting to be better than average? Which is it?
If you walked the course with him Friday, you got whatever answer you wanted. You saw the greatest golfer who ever lived, and you saw the slightly-above-average pro golfer. Tiger was both – surprisingly, frustratingly, both.
On the 7th fairway, he had 125 yards to the pin after a lovely drive. Nothin' to it, really. But somehow Tiger left the shot short. Not short of the hole, but short of the green. How does that happen? He was two shots off the eventual cut line. He had a busted shoelace and needed to swap to a new pair of shoes on 6, and there were half-joking mumbles that he was about to pull out of the tournament entirely. Onlookers stared not at his face or his ball, but at his knees to see any sign of a limp. It was that bleak.
Then came the turn, and not just the turn from front to back, but a turn of a switch. On eight he hit a 5-wood on a par 3 – into a stiff breeze, no less – and dropped it within eight feet. Birdie.
Hole 9: Woods blistered his drive 340 yards, then fired a rocket over the trees to chipping distance on a par 5. Birdie.
And if you've ever been in a Tiger Woods gallery, you know what it's like when he gets going. Fans start running. Check that, sprinting to the next tee. There are giggles and woops and all sorts of giddy chatter. "I want to see Tiger swing out of his shoes!" said one fan. "See that shot?!" said another. "It looks like a plane!"
Another birdie at 10. Still another at 11. And then the question about the cut seemed silly. What was everyone thinking? It's Tiger Freaking Woods, people. Forget the cut; maybe he can win this thing.
Tiger's expression never changes, but the steely stare takes on a new meaning when he's playing well. It seems to stoke the energy along the rope line. Woods always looks angry, and when he scuffles his demeanor looks terrible on television. But in person, it's almost like a boxer marching to the ring. Fans feed off the smoldering gaze. They want him more angry, more surly. They want him to glare even harder, burn a hole in the path in front of him. This is what they came to see – the charge, the man bending the course to his will. On TV, he just seems removed. But in person, there's a palpable fury that reaches everyone. And it doesn't feel like golf. It feels like an event.
"It's totally different in person," said Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Laurent Robinson, who was watching Woods up close for the first time. "Just the focus. He puts the blinders on and blocks everybody out. It's hard to do, believe me."
As he headed to 14, Woods had everyone captivated. And then, just as improbably, the momentum started to leak away.
He had an 86-foot chip to the 14th green that he left 12 feet short. He pushed it. Bogey. Back to 1-under on the tournament.
On 15, Tiger dropped his drive in the middle of the fairway and faced a fairly straight-forward approach. "Be right!" he yelled after his shot. It wasn't right. He let his club fall to the ground. He had about 25 feet left, into a slope that dropped right-to-left. He started it left. Never had a chance. Standing 10 feet behind him, fans gasped. "How can you not know it's going this way," one said, mimicking the curve of the slope with the palm of his hand.
And so it was, over and over on Friday: Some shots left you wondering, "How'd he do that?" Other left you scratching your head, asking, "How'd he do that?"
Finally, on the 18th, Tiger crafted a beautiful penultimate shot that left him six feet for a birdie that would have put him within five shots of the lead. He got to the green, stood over the ball and pushed it. Par. Tied for 30th overall. A lot of golf to play, but a lot of guys to beat.
After the round, Woods said he wanted to shoot 66. He missed that by two strokes. Not bad at all. "I hit the ball well all day," he said, "and really putted well today."
But on the other hand …
"I misread a few putts out there," he said. "The greens were a little bit grainy this afternoon, so I didn't give it enough credit on a couple of those putts."
Which is it? Hitting the ball well all day or misreading a few putts? Of course it's both. And that's OK on a day when four of the world's top 10 players missed the cut. It's OK when you start at 2-over and end at 2-under. But "both" isn't enough for Tiger Woods and isn't enough for the galleries that feed off him.
As the sun started to set and Tiger walked up 16, a young woman in pink confessed to her boyfriend, "I'm golfed out for today." Others wandered away from the rope line and their conversations meandered, too. The fever was gone. It was just a nice summer evening.
Well past 8 p.m., Tiger walked around the practice green with a wedge in his hand. He scooped up a ball, popped it up into the air with his clubface and swatted it into the gloaming. He did this again and again, rarely missing. It was so reminiscent of the Tiger Woods from the old Nike commercial, popping that ball up in the air for what seemed like an eternity until he finally crushed it into the distance. Remember that Tiger Woods? Of course you do. We all do. That's why so many followed a guy who had to find his game to make the cut Friday.
There are certainly flickers of that Tiger Woods, as there were after dusk on the practice green Friday. On Saturday, Woods will chase those flickers all day long. So will thousands of fans.
The flickers might catch flame. Or they might just flicker out.
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