The Last Time
Finally, a moment of truth.
Less than an hour before he'll tee off in the final round of the 2010 Masters, Tiger Woods walks onto the far corner of the Augusta National's vast practice range.
The other players and caddies sneak looks. A cheer rises from the packed grandstands, and the rowdier people squeezed together behind the green gallery ropes yell encouragement from short range. "Go, Tiger! You're the man!" He might be disgraced, he might be a punch line, but he's still iconic.
As he puts on his glove, the force of the collective gaze that always makes me feel uncomfortable when I'm walking with Tiger at a major championship is more penetrating. He's become more than just the greatest player alive. He's the human being who's fallen farther faster than anyone else in history. The haters, the sympathizers, the commentators--everyone--want to see what it's done to him.
So do I. Yes, he's been different since returning from an addiction-treatment facility six weeks ago--more subdued, possibly shell-shocked--but I've been waiting to judge whether he's changed as a golfer. Tiger has always been able to go to a special place mentally in the majors, and I'm eager to find out if he still can. Will he still be Tiger Woods? Passing golf's excruciating Sunday tests has always been what he does best. But this one feels most like a reckoning.
Tiger is in third place, four strokes behind Lee Westwood and three behind Phil Mickelson. Without saying so--he's said little about anything all week--he knows that a good round today will regain him respect. And it's in the air that a victory would be even bigger than the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, when he won on a broken leg; finishing on top here might legitimately be judged the most dramatic win in golf history. It would mean redemption, a goal that suddenly seems more important than surpassing Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships.
Now it's go time. Tiger's Sunday warm-ups are traditionally works of art, especially when he's in contention. After three competitive rounds, he's usually distilled what is working to its essence, and using a mix of adrenaline and focus, he can go through the whole bag without missing a shot. Despite having watched Tiger hit thousands of balls, I still feel that thrill that comes with seeing him with full command at close quarters. His swing begins with serene poise at address, continues with a smooth gathering of power, and then, with the coordinated explosion that announces a supreme athlete, uncoils in a marriage of speed and control, the ball seemingly collected more than hit by the clubface. As he relaxes into his balanced finish, the look Tiger gets on his face as he watches his ball fly is more peaceful than at any other moment.
But something is wrong. After a few balls, I can see Tiger is strangely detached. He's taking too little time between swings, barely watching where the balls go, sometimes even taking one hand off the club before completing his follow-through. The flush yet cracking sound of his impact that for years has announced his superiority over other players isn't quite the same. He's having a terrible warm-up, almost as if he's not really trying. Other than a few quick grimaces of disgust, his face remains eerily stoic.
I'm about ten feet away, standing behind him along his target line, checking to see if his club shaft is on plane, marking his head movement, assessing the ball flight, weighing whether to say something or continue to stay quiet. It's what I've done as his coach during countless practice sessions over the past six years, but he's acting as if I'm not there. I...