Tiger is back! … Or is he?

AUGUSTA, Ga. — For a few hours Sunday, Tiger Woods made America sit up straighter on its collective couch. As he charged from seven shots behind into a brief tie for the Masters lead, seizing the pixels on flat screens from coast to coast, Woods brought back memories of the dominant 1997 Tiger.

Then, somewhere on the back nine, he climbed back into the DeLorean with Marty McFly and landed on the 18th green as the same old 2011 Tiger.

Woods finished in a tie for fourth place. He lost by four strokes to a whippet South African named Charl Schwartzel.

Still, there was some sentiment that his brief stretch of excellence might have been a real turning point for Woods, who has been in a victory slump since his marriage meltdown. His front nine Sunday_with four birdies and an eagle_was as electric as any front nine in his career.

Could this be a precursor to the big Woods career comeback that so many golf commentators and fans have anticipated?


As nongolf commentator Alex Trebek once said: No, sorry. Pick another category, please.

Historians will recall that last year at the Masters, Woods also finished in a tie for fourth place. He went on to win zero major championships and zero PGA events the rest of the year. Sunday was the 11th straight major championship he has failed to win, the longest such streak of his career.

Which is why, as he left the grounds at Augusta National, Woods had to be wondering how he had blown it. The Masters was his best chance to win a major in 2011. It is always his best major opportunity. Every year.

You see, here is the quiet little secret about the Masters that almost no one mentions: It is by far the easiest major title in golf to win. For anybody, not just Woods. As an invitational tournament, the Masters has the smallest field_just 99 players, all by invitation based on qualifications that are often designed to get familiar names in the field and build the television ratings.

For example, every former Masters winner is invited. That's why among those 99 players this year were Ben Crenshaw, Sandy Lyle, Craig Stadler and Mark O'Meara. Fine gentlemen. Nice old guys. But hardly still among the world's best players. All were out of realistic contention by the back nine Thursday.

By comparison, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last summer had 155 players. All of them either had to win qualifying tournaments or meet some other quality standard that involved playing good golf over the previous 12 months, not having a name on a trophy from 1982.

What that means: Making the cut at Augusta is much less hard. The winner at Augusta also doesn't have as many good players to beat_and doesn't have as many to climb past when making a charge. It is also the only major championship played at the same course every year, which gives an advantage to those who have been there before. Woods last won the Masters in 2005. But in the six years since, he has finished no lower than sixth. He is basically in the hunt each April.

Another factor: The brilliantly theatrical Augusta National design. The layout was formulated in the early 1930s by the late golf-course architect Alister MacKenzie at his house adjoining Pasatiempo Golf Course in Santa Cruz, Calif. MacKenzie imposed mandatory tournament drama with two par 5s on the back nine that can be reached with two good shots. For a hard hitter such as Woods, those par 5s are red meat.


Except that Sunday, he dined more on hamburger than steak. Woods parred the 13th and birdied the 15th. And he made no other birdies on the back nine.

"I hit it good all weekend," Woods insisted to reporters at the course after he was finished.

He was right about that. Woods was undone Sunday by his putting on the back nine_including a lipped-out birdie attempt on the 13th green that doubled him over in mental agony. But his swings from tee to green did look more settled, more confident and stronger than any other time in the past 15 months.

The problem: On today's PGA Tour, there are plenty of young players with swings just as flashy and powerful and confident. Plus, the mental edge Woods once possessed, the one that seemed to make lesser competitors wilt at the very sight of him, still has not returned full force.

On the plus side, Woods' will to win does seem back in fifth or sixth gear. The sad events of his personal life seem to be more compartmentalized than they were in 2010. He is still just 35 years old. Odds are that by the time he is finished, he will find a way to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships.

But there's no way Woods can waste many more back-nine chances the way he did this time around, or else he won't get there. There's no way he can let too many more Masters go by and have this be the take-away: another great day for Jack Nicklaus.

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