AUGUSTA, Ga. - Let's just put this out there, shall we? Once Tiger Woods announced he'd be returning from a long layoff at this week's Masters, the Tiger Woods Hating Brigade believed Woods would miss the cut so badly that the gallery would simply point and laugh, shaming him right out of the game altogether. The Tiger Woods Sanctification Society believed Woods would drop birdies like grenades, detonating the greens and the leaderboard en route to another green jacket.
Both contingents are equally delusional, and both were equally wrong, as Woods finished the second day of the Masters at 2-under and safe for the weekend. Sure, he's 12 strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth, but that's not the point. Woods, both because of recent injury and an extended period of poor play, was even money, at best, to make the cut ... and that's one hell of a fall.
"Tiger vs. the Field" has become "Tiger vs. the Early Departure."
"To basically change an entire pattern," Woods said immediately after the round, "and put it togehter and put it in a position where I can compete in a major championship like this is something I'm very proud [of]."
Woods played Friday's round exactly the way he needed to: taking advantage of good breaks and minimizing mistakes. He birdied the first, then bogeyed the sixth, but got back that stroke and one more with birdies on the next two holes. He had but a single birdie on the back nine, but managed several long par saves, including a 14-footer on 17 that he used to make routinely and now cards only rarely.
We're five years from Woods' return to Augusta following his fire-hydrant-and-scandal-induced layoff. That year, Woods shut out distractions of every stripe, like planes flying mocking signs, to finish in a tie for fourth. For a guy who basically rolled up to the course with virtually no prep, having not played a competitive round in months, Woods' performance on that week was perhaps the most impressive non-winning tournament of his career.
"I'm still right there," Woods said, displaying that optimism that borders on delusion. "I'm 12 back, but there's not a lot of guys (18) ahead of me. And with 36 holes here to go, anything can happen." Woods then referenced 1996, the infamous Masters in which Greg Norman coughed up a six-stroke Sunday lead. Tiger won't be the last to do so.
We've still got a ways to go, but if Woods can craft another couple of quality rounds this week, the 2015 Masters will rank up there in the annals of "quality non-wins." There's no way Woods will be in anything close to contention; there's just too much ground to make up and too many players ahead of him. But if he's able to bring home a top-five finish, that will quiet the Bag-It-Tiger contingent, and give hope that better times lie ahead for Woods.
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