Tiger Woods puts a charge into Augusta

From Augusta, Ga.

Here he comes.

The rain started, then stopped, the muddled sky holding back, the sun peeking out and Augusta National suddenly aglow with a man and his putt.

The hordes of green-clad fans stared, murmured, wondered, then, as the slight tap gently rolled a dozen feet into the cup, erupted in a startling roar that sounded like a welcome home.

Here he comes.

Don't look if you can't. Throw this paper down if you must. But 17 months after destroying his personal life and threatening his historic career, Tiger Woods is crawling back.

Rory McIlroy still leads at the Masters

The world will never view him the same, but the fans at Augusta National were climbing over each other to get a look Friday when he emerged from his desperate isolation to birdie seven of the last 11 holes, shoot a 66 and climb into a third-place tie at seven under par after two days of the Masters.

Maybe it won't last. But maybe it will. With iron shots that flew and putts that dropped, and even a swagger that stalked, Woods temporarily stopped a 20-tournament spiral with what are still golf's three most powerful words.

Same old Tiger.

"I played myself back into the championship," he said later and, for once, the guy who always tries to be so cool did not attempt to disguise his glee.

Photos: 2011 Masters tournament

He smiled. He joked. He even admitted he was fueled by a crowd that went bonkers when he sunk that final birdie putt on No.18, then continued to cheer him as he rode a cart from the scorers' tent to the media room.

Asked if he sensed the renewed energy, he said, "Absolutely. Absolutely. We definitely could feel that. It was fun."

Same old Tiger.

The leader is Rory McIlroy at 10 under, but this 21-year-old Irish kid has twice publicly dismissed Woods, and how do you think he would handle a final-day pairing with guy whose best club is vengeance?

"I don't really care what anyone else does, I don't need to know," protested McIlroy of Woods. "It will be great for the tournament if he's up there, but … I'm in a better position."

Same old Tiger.

Sitting in second place is Jason Day, a 23-year-old Australian who leads Woods by one stroke but has already publicly placed him on a pedestal, and how would that work on their Sunday date?

"Ninety-seven, watching Tiger, and he just blew away the field. ... That's when I wanted to play well and one day play the Masters," Day said.

Of course, Woods has to survive Saturday to reach Sunday, and that's no certainty, considering he shot a third-round 66 at last year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, then followed it with a final round 75 to tie for fourth place.

"We have got a long to way to go," said Woods, smiling, clearly thinking those days are behind him. "It's going to be fun."

He's already having fun, repeatedly pumping his fist and even pumping his cap after finishing the round, doing it not with intimidation but with giddiness, almost like the same golfer in a different body, something playing partner Graeme McDowell noticed.

"I don't know who the old Tiger Woods was, but he was really good today," said McDowell, who defeated Woods to win the U.S. Open last year and chased him down at Sherwood Country Club in December. "He looked ominous."

Before this tournament, that was a word that seem to fit Woods' future, as he was winless in the 17 months since his marriage crashed amid tales of numerous and tawdry affairs. If this had involved almost any other athlete, folks would have shrugged, but Woods had promoted himself as a model citizen, so in losing that reputation, he nearly lost everything.

He began this tournament looking so pathetic, I wrote that, after feeling sorry only for his family, I now also felt sorry for him. I still do. No Masters victory, nor anything else on any golf course, can help Woods to repair the damage he caused.

But for the first time Friday, he seemed poised to attempt to at least get his professional life under control, and he actually seemed appreciative of that chance.

"Oh, it felt good," he said. "Got it going coming in."

Woods was so good, so late, early Friday evening I tore up a column I had written about a guy who could be considered a much bigger surprise. But I'm sure Fred Couples wouldn't care, seeing as he probably wasn't even awake to see Woods' charge.

"I'm ready for the couch," Couples said in the early afternoon after shooting a 68 to go five under and put himself within striking distance of becoming the oldest Masters winner.

Twenty-five years after Jack Nicklaus set that mark age 46, Couples could geezer him into history at 51, and wouldn't that be cool?

"Retiring, is what it would be," Couples said, laughing. "I would be gone."

Not that he's more Golden Girl than Golden Bear, but …

"It would be the biggest upset in golf history," he said.

And what fun it would be, a guy who has won one PGA Tour event in 13 years, a cuss whom everybody still calls "Freddie," playing his way into Butler Cabin's early-bird special with a historically aching back that has recently become so painful, it prevents him from even bending over.

Couples received some injections in the back last week, and the shots didn't really work, but he continues to play through.

"Since October, it's been pretty much a toothache. … It hasn't changed much," Couples said, adding, "It's very awkward to play golf when it's more painful. I've had a bad back for a long time, but the pain is not a whole lot of fun."

I have an idea where the weary Couples goes from here. I have no idea about Woods, for whom the weekend will now serve as a report card on an attempted rebound from the biggest fall in the history of American sports.

Here he comes?



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