AUGUSTA, Ga.—Having just birdied No. 14 to put himself in sole possession of the Masters lead on Saturday evening, Francesco Molinari made the short walk to the 15th tee—which just so happens to be mere yards from the 18th hole, which just so happened to be where Tiger Woods was ready to take a rip.
As Molinari and Jason Day began to prepare for their drives, the bushes and trees right of the 15th fairway began to rumble. Colors flashed through the foliage: white hats, Lilly Pulitzer prints, the rainbow of a crowd that affixed itself to Woods at 2 p.m. and followed since. What had started as a low hum built to a roar as Woods hit a picture-perfect fade into the 18th fairway, and Day and Molinari were forced to wait—to shift from foot to foot, to stare straight ahead, to standby as the commotion settled.
They were playing at the mercy of Tiger.
Quiet would return soon enough, and Molinari would birdie the par 5 to reach -13, adding a second shot to his lead over Woods and Tony Finau. Meanwhile, the Woods stampede mobilized nearby. The frenzied masses didn’t seem to know which side of the fairway was best to get a glimpse. They weren’t above a slide down a brown-orange, pine needle-covered hill in their quest for prime position.
Behind them, the leader played on.
Earlier in the afternoon, just after 3:30 p.m., Woods’ name had disappeared from the towering leaderboard that looms over the 11th green. He’d made bogey on 5, for the third straight day, to drop to -5. That wasn’t quite good enough anymore to warrant mention, and spectators wondered what had happened, how far out of it he’d fallen. Finau, on the other hand, made eagle on 8 to move to -9 and seize the lead. When he eventually made his way down the 11th fairway, still ahead by himself, the grandstands erupted. But don’t get confused—Finau’s presence was a mere coincidence. You see, one of the lines on the leaderboard had gone blank, and then a letter appeared: W. Tiger was back in it, and after the O, and the other O, the D, the S, a red 7 appeared. Woods had made back-to-back birdies to pull within two of the lead.
Back on 11, Finau turned a wayward approach into a par, then saved par again on 12 after missing the green. That’s when a man in a white golf shirt mispronounced his name.
“Yeah, I didn't notice [the commotion over Woods] much,” Finau said after finishing at -11. “I would say I was in the zone today, just staying in my lane, trying to do my thing. … But it's always a great tournament whenever Tiger is in the mix, and he's 100 percent in the mix right now.”
It’s a scene reminiscent of the PGA Championship at Bellerive last August, when Woods nipped at the top of the leaderboard all day Sunday but was never able to eclipse Brooks Koepka. From one group back, Koepka seemed an afterthought; he inherited a crowd on the 18th green that had been waiting to watch Woods’ glory and reluctantly took Koepka’s win as a consolation prize. So the winner of two of the three past majors, who finished Saturday three strokes off Molinari’s lead and one behind Woods, might have felt a sense of déjà vu as he played Augusta’s back nine on Saturday. Birds chirped and wind blew, and the security guard tasked with Koepka and Scott had a leisurely afternoon.
This is the Tiger Effect. It’s common enough, now, over the course of this comeback, that it’s almost routine. Here are the ingredients: Woods plays well, and other golfers play just slightly better. Maybe they’re more consistent, or perhaps they got off on slightly better footing earlier in the week. But what they are is a collective afterthought, rendered irrelevant by the man in the mock turtleneck. It’s not that Woods plays in a vacuum—it’s that he is a vacuum, sucking all the juice out of the rest of the tournament and funneling it to whatever fairway he’s currently colonizing. Contending at a major at the same time as Woods must feel like being born on Christmas. It sounds like the World Series would if you were blindfolded: exciting and confusing, and who knows if these eruptions are good or bad or utterly irrelevant?
The Effect is pernicious. It hangs around off the course, too. Molinari, who will play with Woods Sunday, was asked question after question about the other golfer after putting up a dazzling round. Molinari hasn’t bogeyed a hole since Thursday, yet he spent as much time Saturday evening being probed about Woods as he did speaking about his own game. What was it like to watch Woods on television more than a decade ago? What was it like to play alongside him at Carnoustie last year? Pick a favorite for tomorrow! (He demurred.) The only thing that’s certain about tomorrow is the crowd will favor Woods.
Finau, who grew up studying the 14-time major champion, emulating him, reflected more. He said that Woods taught his generation—Finau is 29, Woods 43—to compete. “Meaning,” Finau explains, “you shouldn’t cheer anyone. … [Now,] it's a different era, and he's playing against a different… generation. He's playing against guys that he kind of bred. We were watching him as teenagers through high school and watching him dominate, and I think all of us relish now having a chance to compete against him.”
So maybe it’s fun to hear the rumble, a reminder of that chance. Maybe it’s terrifying. Some, like Koepka, are deaf to it. “I could care less,” he said about mid-round leaderboard-watching. “I can't control anything that they're doing. Whatever they're going to do, they're going to do.”
Xander Schauffele offered a bit more: “I think that it's clear to say or easy to say that everyone out here wants him to play well. You look around, you have to wait a little longer on a few extra shots on the course, especially since I was so close to him today to see if he was going to make a putt or not.”
Back on 15, a few minutes before Molinari approached the tee and just after Woods wrapped up on 16, two pairs of men passed on the cart path. One pair was walking toward the vortex, the other away. The former asked the latter about Woods, of course. The men who’d left his following admitted they’d done so a while ago, that it had been slow going to wade their way back. But, they said, they’d heard quite a roar. Could have been an eagle, they all agreed.
Woods had, in fact, only birdied No. 16. But on that patch of pavement, for a moment, he was an extra stroke under par, a smidge closer to the lead. If you heard those roars, you’d have believed it too.