This weekend will be a true gauge for Tiger's game

AUGUSTA, Ga. — A year ago, Augusta National represented a soft, safe reentry pattern for Tiger Woods' return to golf, the first stop on a personal redemption tour from the self-inflicted grip of tabloid hell.

We might never know if Tiger has turned himself into the better man he promised on these hallowed golfing grounds, especially not now as it is clear he has once again closed the door on public introspection and personal life disclosures. However, we did learn over and over how Tiger's vow to silence his personal misbehaving roar had muted his professional volume too, stripping him not just of the ability to win a golf tournament, but of the intimidating, red-shirted, fist-pumping persona that dominated its way to 14 major titles.

Yet here we find ourselves, back at Augusta a year later and asking, "Did we just witness the extinction of meek Tiger? Is the golfing roar alive again?"

Here we are, a year after Tiger made his public foray back from the tatters of his infidelity shredded home life, with Augusta National not merely welcoming him back to the game, but welcoming the return of the golfer we once knew.

With a back-nine charge that took flight with five birdies and no bogeys, Woods stalked his way up the leaderboard in vintage fashion Friday, a 6-under round that moved him into a tie for third place at 7-under. He will be in Saturday's second-to-last pairing, joining K.J. Choi (7-under) behind leaders Rory McIlroy (10-under) and Jason Day (8-under).


On Saturday, the perpetual jury mode out on Tiger's game will take another step toward adjudication. If he can find the consistency to stay in the hunt, we'll believe his game is back. If, like he has done so many times since his 144-day sabbatical from competitive play, he answers a sub-par round with a subpar one, we'll file it under the countless other teases he's thrown our way.

It was impossible not to feel the energy Friday, impossible to ignore the roars of Tiger's birdie putts on 10, 13, 14, 15 and 18, the last of which earned a small but satisfying fist pump from the man himself. As the sun began its descent toward one of the greatest weekends in sports, the surging crowds signaled the ascent of golf's dormant but dangerous star.

"The whole idea was to peak for this, this event. We try to peak four times a year," Woods said of himself and coach Sean Foley, the author of the swing change also responsible for this lengthy title slumber. "I played myself back in the tournament, I'm three back, and we have got a long way to go. We have got a long way to go. It's going to be fun."

Tiger was clipped and decisive in his postround answers, so reminiscent of the attitude that for so long cast its authoritative shadow over anyone in its realm. Whether or not the shtick works this year remains to be seen, and not only because we can't predict what Tiger will do Saturday but also because of the relative youth of the targets of his wrath.

If Tiger stalked his way down the fairways, then McIlroy, Day and their third wheel Rickie Fowler (5-under par) romped across it like a schoolyard playground. McIlroy beat the golf course for a second straight day, trumping his first bogey of the tournament with an immediate birdie, pushing his wire-to-wire lead to 10-under with a round of 69. He beat the course with his shots; he beat back Tiger with his words.

"I don't really care what anyone else does. I don't need to know," McIlroy said on his postround podium, speaking as a neighboring television showed Tiger's charge. "It will be great for the tournament if he's up there. But I'm two shots ahead and I'm in a better position."

And while Tiger stalked and the kids romped, Fred Couples brought his trademark style too, sashaying his way into a 5-under mark that pairs him with Fowler in this afternoon's fifth-to-final group. Like Woods, Couples met Augusta's embrace as if falling into the arms of a loving parent, the warmth of familiarity guiding him to unearth a round out of his glorious past.

The 1992 Masters champ is 51 years old now, and in this 25th anniversary celebration of Jack Nicklaus' 1986 win at age 46, Couples woke up those echoes. His no-glove ripping drives and pants-hitching putts may not be able to survive two more days of pounding on a chronically painful back, but across the wondrous first two days, he made himself a contender.


"I wait the whole year to come and play here. This is my favorite event," Couples said. "You know, I mean, could I win? Of course. Am I looking forward to playing (Saturday)? Yeah, you'd better believe it."

So Friday brought us two golfers returning to an old friend and finding a welcome hug, and Saturday brings us two similar tales of uncertainty as to whether the embrace can last. Couples, our sympathetic everyman, is searching for old magic. Tiger, our erstwhile Superman, is searching for old mojo. One wants to rekindle his past; one wants to ignite his future.

As Couples' afternoon news conference was wrapping up, a final question was shouted his way: "If Jack's (win in '86) was unbelievable, what would this be if you did it?"

Not missing a beat, Couples answered, "Retiring, is what it would be. I'd be gone. It would be the greatest upset in golf history."

What would a Tiger victory mean? That the roar that started Friday was for real. We can't tell you about the man, but the golfer? He'd be back.

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