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For Tiger Woods, limping and last at the Masters, every step is a struggle

For Tiger Woods, limping and last at the Masters, every step is a struggle

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It is clear now that Tiger Woods, in the few tournaments he is able to play, is two people who begin each day separate from each other: the golfer, who is still capable, and the human, who can’t walk without a limp. The problem is that over the course of four days and 72 holes, those two characters merge. That becomes a mess.

Saturday at the Masters was both an extreme example of how weather can alter a golf tournament and an absolutely typical example of how difficult this is for Woods, now and forever. It is enormously impressive that he’s lugging a right leg held together by bolts up and down the hills of Augusta National Golf Club, regardless of the results. And at times, it’s just flat-out, turn-your-head-away hard to watch.

“I’ve always loved this golf course, and I love playing this event,” Woods said Saturday. It’s an evergreen quote. These are new circumstances. Saturday, then, should forever be the day when it became fair to wonder how many more Masters he would — or could — even try.

The circumstances this weekend conspired against him, but then so did crashing his car at 80 mph on a serpentine road in California two years ago and ravaging his leg. Rain and wind Friday suspended the second round and left Woods with seven holes to play the next morning. He woke up right on the cut line. Whether making it would be a reward or a penalty is a worthy debate.

“I wish I get a chance to play to play two more rounds,” Woods said, standing under an umbrella, Saturday midmorning. At that point, maybe he even meant it. He had finished his second round bogey-bogey and sat at 3 over par, outside the top 50 players and those tied with them. To earn 36 more holes, either Justin Thomas, Woods’s good pal, or South Korea’s Sungjae Im would have to fall from 2 over to 3 over or worse, moving the cut line. Both did. Instead of a comfy flight home to Florida and some badly needed rest, Woods had a tee time in about 2½ hours.

At disrupted Masters, Brooks Koepka leads but Mother Nature is in control

The blessing in that is that Woods has now made the cut in every Masters he has played as a professional, 23 in all. That matches the tournament record held by Gary Player and Fred Couples for most consecutive cuts made.

Yet at this point, what do such records mean to Woods? He has always played to win tournaments (he is tied with Sam Snead for the most PGA Tour victories with 82) and major championships (his 15 trail only Jack Nicklaus’s 18). Because his leg has been rebuilt with steel and his surgically repaired back could also flare up and become a debilitating factor, it’s fair to wonder if such triumphs are remotely possible going forward.

“The magic is still in there,” said Viktor Hovland, who played the first two rounds with Woods, “even though he’s a little banged up.”

The problem is he becomes more banged up as the day and the week advance. Drop a rested Woods from a helicopter to any golf shot on this course, and he could execute it. Make him walk to those shots 280-some times over four days, and it becomes increasingly difficult.

Woods telegraphed the potential for struggles earlier in the week. On Tuesday, Augusta National member Rob Johnston — who has moderated Woods’s news conferences here for years — opened Woods’s pretournament session with the media by praising him for shooting 71-74 in last year’s first two rounds, making the cut just 14 months after his horrific crash.

“What an extraordinary accomplishment,” Johnston fawned.

“Thank you,” Woods replied quickly. “And then it got cold.”

The result of the lousy weather and the increased mileage on Woods’s creaky leg: back-to-back 78s over the weekend to wind up 47th, his worst finish in any Masters in which he made the cut.

Until now. And we’ll get to that. But it’s important to understand that Woods, even in a clearly compromised state, still has the ability to hold both the galleries and the field in a spell. On Tuesday, Hovland was on the practice range when his caddie got word that they would play the first two rounds with Woods — a first for the talented young Norwegian.

“When he said we were paired with Tiger, my heart kind of went a little bit further up in the throat,” Hovland said. “Heart rate started going up. … You’ve just got to embrace it. You can’t be scared or anything like that.”

Scared of a 47-year-old man with a fused spine and a robotic leg? It’s still real, even if maybe it shouldn’t be. He needs too much rest and recovery to play very many tournaments at all — this is his fourth in the last calendar year. And he can’t practice enough to be sharp, even for those.

Highlights and updates from Saturday at the Masters

Onward. Because Augusta officials wanted to squeeze in as much golf as possible Saturday, they sent the field off for the third round in threesomes from both the first and 10th tees. That meant Woods, who had needed help to stay alive, would begin play from No. 10 at the same time as leader Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Sam Bennett would tee off from No. 1. The two tee boxes are separated by only a few dozen paces. The hootin’ and hollerin’ for Woods, barely in the field, easily out-clamored the support for the players who might actually win this thing.

Woods blitzed his tee shot down the left side of the fairway, another reminder that if only golf were involved, there might not be an issue. But then he had to walk. The 10th fairway is the most dramatic downslope that unrelentingly undulating Augusta has to offer, a golf hole that could double as a ski hill. Just walking it pained Woods, who ambled … oh, who are we kidding? With so much golf behind and so much more ahead, he could no longer amble. He limped, and slowly, well behind the three caddies and two players ahead.

By the time he reached the 15th, the struggle was real, and moving even from his bag to his ball looked arduous. He spun an approach back off the green into the pond in front, a double bogey. At the par-3 16th, he swiped at his tee shot. It never had a chance, dead in the water. He had played the hole in competition 96 times. He had never made a double — until Saturday.

That’s where a slump-shouldered Woods ended his day, with the rain pelting down and play suspended again. He is 9 over, three shots worse than any of the other 53 players who made the cut. So it’s worth wondering: Can a man who can’t really walk at Augusta ever again compete at Augusta? Which leads the mind quickly to: Is Tiger Woods’s last Masters in the near future — or even the present?

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