From Augusta, Ga.
The roar engulfed Tiger Woods as he walked up the final fairway, but he never smiled, never touched his cap, never even looked up, and how could he?
The cheers were not for him. The cheers were for the next him.
As Woods was splattering the finishing touches on a round that decorated Augusta National like some unrecognizable graffiti, the kid in the pairing behind him was sinking a 30-foot birdie putt to complete a masterpiece.
Woods approached the giant scoreboard just as a large red “12" was posted next to Rory McIIroy’s name, and the fans erupted, and if that didn’t feel like the passing of the torch, well, just wait a day.
With one long afternoon remaining, the 75th Masters is being grasped by the thick hands of a 21-year-old who is trying to be what Woods once was, stealing the love that Woods once felt, and the comparison is startling.
In Saturday’s steamy third round, the tourney-long leading McIlroy calmly collected three birdies on the difficult final six holes, finishing with a two-under-par 70 to bring his three-day total to 12 under, good enough to lead a foursome by four strokes. Woods, who began the day three strokes behind McIlroy, is not in that foursome after fumbling and slipping and falling seven strokes back.
McIlroy made this tournament’s trademark gesture thus far with a rousing over-the-top fist pump after sinking that last birdie putt. Woods, who practically created the fist pump, instead applied his stamp with a rousing curse word that was mouthed on television and clear to millions.
Those who thought Woods’ Friday charge would lead him to his first win in 17 months were probably wrong. Those who thought McIlroy ever even looked over his shoulder were absolutely wrong.
“The way we played the last nine holes yesterday, you would expect him to come out and play well,” McIlroy said of Woods. “Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.”
He shrugged. “But as I said, I really don’t care about anyone else in this golf tournament.”
Judging from the way McIlroy played Saturday, it’s safe to assume that he treats all his competitors like that messy mop of black hair on his head, simply tucking them under his cap and playing on.
“The way he’s hitting it, he’s going to be very, very tough to catch,” said Jason Day, who joins Angel Cabrera, Charl Schwartzel and K.J. Choi in trailing the leader by four strokes,
Judging from the way Woods played, it’s safe to wonder if he has passed that red sweater to his younger admirers for good.
McIlroy and Day have talked this week about being inspired as young children by watching Woods’ 1997 Masters victory. They have both since made it clear that this is not the same Woods.
After a brief period of pleasantries a day earlier, Saturday’s Woods once again missed putts he should make, slipped on approach shots he should nail, and reacted with the same immature club pounding and wailing that has long been his trademark.
As I was walking the course late Saturday afternoon, I heard a loud and painful cry from the middle of a fairway. The air was thick, the heat was searing, there were fans taking ill in the shade behind the bleachers, I figured the scream was from another stricken patron.
No, it was just Woods shouting at his ball in the middle of a fairway, which he did a lot, although the ball rarely listened, as it found a sand divot on the first shot of the round and never paid much attention to Tiger after that.
Woods bogeyed two of the first four holes, bogeyed the final hole, and missed a mess of birdie putts in between. The old Tiger would have been inspired by the vulnerability of the youthful leader and run him down. This Tiger’s chase only seemed to expose vulnerabilities of his own.
“I hit the ball well all day; that wasn’t the problem,” Woods said. “I just made nothing.”
When asked if he still thought he could win the tournament, he brightened and said, “Absolutely,” but for that to happen, he would have to do something he never really did when he was still Tiger Woods — mount a big comeback to win a major on Sunday. There’s not only seven strokes, but 11 players and what seems like a million years between him and McIlroy.
The best chance to catch the kid would seem to belong to Cabrera, who is the only player in the top eight who has won a major. But even the legendary quiet paddling of the Argentine known as “El Pato” — the duck — might not be enough to rattle McIlroy.
Remember earlier in the week when he talked about being scolded by a neighbor for throwing a football in the street late one night outside his Augusta rental home? Well, he and his buddies are still throwing the football, only they’ve taken their act inside.
“Just trying not to break any lamps,” he said.
Remember the talk about McIlroy receiving inspiration from fellow Northern Ireland native Graeme McDowell, who last summer became the first Irishman to win the U.S. Open? Well, it’s still happening, sort of.
“Actually, he just texted me and told me he loves me,” McIlroy said Saturday night, pausing. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that’s him or the beer talking.”
Come Sunday afternoon, it could be the world talking, praising golf’s wonder child in words will not only sound refreshing, but familiar.
Just ask Tiger.