Tiger Woods: two steps forward, three steps back

Just over a year ago, Tiger Woods' life was a complete disaster. He was doing television interviews about his personal life, and confessing to things nobody ever thought they'd hear from the world's most polished athlete. Tiger tumbled down one of the biggest falls we've ever seen from an athlete; more than Mike Tyson, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Ben Roethlisberger, because to us, Tiger was a saint, and the man could do no wrong.

But he announced he was heading to Augusta National to begin his 2010 season, in hopes that golf would reinvent him. He wore a bracelet. He committed to being a better person on and off the golf course. He told us things would change. And they did.

When the golf started, Tiger opened with a 4-under 68, the lowest score he'd ever shot in the first round of the Masters, and he followed that up with some rusty rounds of golf that you'd expect from someone five months removed from competitive golf. That week, Tiger finished in a tie for fourth, and we all expected great things again. They never came.

Just over a week ago, Tiger Woods headed back to Augusta National in hopes of reinventing something else: his golf game. It had been far from what we'd expected over the last 18 months, but this place was special to Tiger, and success seemed evident for Woods at the Masters.

After four rounds of up-and-down golf, Tiger was in a familiar position; a tie for fourth. One whole year, a big swing change, and very much the same result.

A lot of people see progress in Tiger's finish at the Masters. He hit some good shots, fired two sub-68 rounds, and made a charge on the front nine on Sunday. But for all he did, it seems that when the going got tough, Tiger faltered. It seems nobody is talking about that. They should.

To me, on Sunday, Tiger took two huge steps over his first nine holes. The birdies on Nos. 6 and 7 were really clutch, and the eagle he fist-pumped in on No. 8 was stuff of legends, as Tiger clearly is. The real impressive move, however, was his par putt on the ninth to keep the momentum going. Tiger was at 10-under. He shouldn't have finished worse than 12-under. But Tiger played the final nine holes at Augusta National, a place he once played at 6-under after a 40 on his first nine, even par. It was a huge step back in the progression of Tiger Woods. He had a chance to make a roar and could barely muster an eek. For all the positives we toss at Tiger (his swing looks better, he is getting closer, he will find it in time), we all need to understand that in the three times over the last five months that Tiger has been in contention in a tournament, he has completely fallen apart. The first was at the Chevron World Challenge, when Tiger entered the day with a Rory-like four-shot lead, but stumbled in with a 1-over 73 and lost in a playoff. The second wasn't nearly as dramatic, but at Bay Hill earlier this season, Tiger shot a second-round 68 to put himself in the hunt, chasing names like Martin Laird and Spencer Levin.

Tiger's weekend scores of 74-72 were hardly a charge, and he finished a disappointing T24.

But Augusta was as different as it was much of the same. For a guy that is considered as clutch as anyone that's picked up a 7-iron, Tiger has still never won a major coming from behind, and that was the position he found himself in on Sunday. Woods needed to make some noise, and make some noise early. He did so, and after pars on the always tough 10th and 11th, Woods was in perfect position to strike. He found the green on the No. 12, the last of the throat-clutching holes, and it seemed that 2-under on the back was as bad as he'd score. Sadly, you know the story from there, and the charge sputtered.

Tiger is way more mentally tough than I'll ever be. He has spent his career clearing his mind and remembering only the shot he's standing over. But lately, it sure seems like he can't. He isn't making the putts he has to make, and he isn't hitting the shots he has to hit. Golf is an 18-hole sport, and if Tiger really wanted to do something at Augusta, he would have finished that round the way he started it.

I'm sure some will see positives from his play at this week's Masters, but for me, it's simply this: Tiger has spent a year working as hard on his golf game as he may have ever worked, and his finish in 2010 and 2011 have been the exact same: a tie for fourth.

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