Tiger of old reappears; will he stay?
As he spoke of holding the midway lead at the Masters, Rory McIlroy’s eyes kept darting to the large electronic leaderboard off to his left in the Augusta National media center.
One name was climbing fast.
And looming large.
If there was any dread in him, the young Northern Irishman didn’t betray it, but in the pit of his stomach he knows now, if he didn’t before, that he has a long, arduous weekend ahead of him if he’s to win his first major.
At one point, after Woods had three-putted the seventh hole for bogey, McIlroy had him by 10 shots. In truth, the margin should’ve been greater, but McIlroy, who’s striking the ball as well as a man can strike it, missed a handful of birdie putts.
With ebullient young Aussie Jason Day, a Masters rookie, equaling the second-round scoring record with a flawless 64 and 51-year-old Freddie Couples charging into contention with a 68, Woods was almost an afterthought.
There were even those wondering aloud if he’d make the cut. Two more careless bogeys like the ones on the third and seventh and he was in danger.
But then the Tiger of old came to life.
The tentative, unsure golfer of the past year — the man who was “very pleased” to open with a so-so 71 — magically gave way to the modern giant of Augusta National we used to know.
He birdied eight, nine and 10 to get to 3 under par for the tournament, then another run at 13, 14, 15 and, for good measure, he sliced an 8-iron approach on the last from behind the right trees and converted the tricky birdie putt from 12 feet.
And, yeah, that birdie was punctuated with the signature fist pump we rarely see anymore.
McIlroy backed up his opening 65 with a very respectable 69.
Yet there was Woods, after shooting 66, with nine birdies — coincidentally, the same score he shot in the second rounds of three of his four Masters triumphs — only three shots back and in the penultimate two-ball on Saturday.
But if McIlroy knows there’s a long journey ahead, so does Woods.
He was careful not to appear too excited about Friday’s round, to the point of being almost subdued.
It was as if he’d sidelined the friendly Tiger, the one who smiles and shoots the breeze, and found again his old ability to close himself off from consequence, from emotion, and stay in the moment, just him in his own little world, focused only on the task at hand.
Or maybe it’s just that he knows he hasn’t proved anything yet.
That the job’s nowhere near being done.
“Played myself back in the championship. We have still got 36 more holes. We have a long way to go,” he said.
Saturday promises to reveal much about the Third Act in the story of Tiger Woods.
He hasn’t been able to put back-to-back spectacular rounds together since his return to competitive golf, here last year, after his life was derailed by scandal.
He’s provided glimpses of his best — the brilliant back nine on the Saturday at Pebble Beach at last year’s U.S. Open — but they’ve been fleeting.
Whatever he finds is gone the next day. And so it’s continued for a year.
But maybe it was always going to be here, on this course and at this tournament he loves the most, that everything was meant to change.
“The whole idea,” he said Friday night, “Was to peak for this event.”
Whatever happens, there will be symmetry to this weekend.
It not only promises an exciting climax on the 25th anniversary of the greatest Masters of them all, when Jack Nicklaus defied the years to win his sixth green jacket, but looms as a line in the sand of generational change.
The future meets the present.
McIlroy was almost 8 when Woods roared to victory here in 1997, a breathtaking achievement that not only forever changed the face of golf but inspired both McIlroy and Day to become golfers.
Woods was McIlroy’s childhood hero.
But as the 21-year-old has grown into a world-class player himself, the dynamic between them has, perhaps inevitably, changed.
Several times, McIlroy has repeated that Woods “isn’t as dominant as he used to be.”
Before last year’s Ryder Cup, Woods was asked about McIlroy’s comment that he’d like to draw his name in the singles.
“Me too,” Woods said.
They don’t dislike one another, but they’re both competitors.
And in this game they’re playing, there can only be one winner.