It surely says something significant about Tiger Woods that in a week in which he 1) was low amateur in his first Masters, 2) made his first cut in seven tries in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, 3) drew history-hungry throngs that ran the gamut from Lee Elder to Shoal Creek founder Hall Thompson, 4) got rave reviews from every top pro who saw him play, 5) hit some talent shots destined to become part of the tournament's lore and 6) kept his conduct above reproach under a media microscope that covered every move of the first black amateur ever to play in the racially complicated atmosphere of the Masters, the 19-year-old Stanford freshman was still disappointed when it became clear on Saturday that he could not win the tournament.
Half an hour after holing out for a third-round 77 that had put him five over par and 15 strokes behind the leaders, Woods laid his lanky 6'1", 150-pound frame on a worn but comfortable green sofa in the Crow's Nest, a cozy room that is topped by the cupola of Augusta National's clubhouse. "I'm so frustrated," said Woods. Birdies on the 2nd and 3rd holes had gotten him to two under for the tournament and on the verge of going on the leader board. But then a spate of bogeys, punctuated by a 6 on the par-5 8th hole when he took 4 from the edge of the green, turned the round into a struggle.
But rather than mope, Woods's face took on a knowing smile, the kind a smart kid gets when he has run into something that is, for the moment, bigger than he is. On Sunday he came back with a solid 72, birdieing three of the last four holes for a total of 293, five over, to finish 41st.
"The way I drove it and putted, I know I could have been in the hunt," said Woods, longingly watching the telecast of the third-round leaders finishing their rounds. "I guess everyone feels that way, but I feel like this place is perfect for me. I guess I need to get to know it better."
He paused and gestured toward the black-and-white framed photographs of Masters champions hanging on the walls. "Someday," he said, the smile growing tighter, "I'm going to get my picture up there."
It would be easy to dismiss such talk as a young man's delusions of grandeur. After all, when confronted with the most essential challenge that the Masters presents, hitting the precise landing areas on Augusta National's rolling greens, Woods was unable to consistently deliver, even with short iron and wedge approaches. Critics could choose to consider the first official putt of Woods's Masters career—a 30-footer on the 1st hole that trundled past the cup, off the green and down an embankment before stopping 50 feet from the hole—as an ugly harbinger. They might also point out that both Ben Crenshaw in 1972 and Phil Mickelson in 1991 did better in their Augusta debuts as amateurs. They could make a case that the reigning U.S. Amateur champion is becoming a victim of hype.
They would be wrong, however, because to dismiss Woods's performance as anything but extraordinary would be to miss the point. For if Woods proved one thing last week, it is that despite whatever sociological baggage anyone cares to impose, he and the Masters are a perfect fit. Although Tiger's excellent adventure was satisfying on many levels, it was most important as a reconnaissance mission to lay the groundwork for many future trips to—and almost surely some victories in—Augusta.
The fact is, based on the manner in which he played if not necessarily his score, Woods brought a unique energy to the 59th Masters. From his first practice round on Monday to his early finish on Sunday, the only male player in history to win three U.S. Junior Amateur championships showed a talent for the game every bit as electrifying as that of the young Nicklaus and the young Ballesteros, both of whom also came to their first Masters at the age of 19.
With the impassive aplomb with which he bombed his opening tee shot on all four days within wedge distance of the 1st green, Woods demonstrated that he feels frighteningly comfortable at Augusta. For emphasis Woods made another statement after Saturday's third round while on the practice range next to eventual runner-up Davis Love III. When Love, the longest hitter on the Tour last year, pulled out his driver, the spectators in the bleachers cheered and loudly urged him to try to carry the 50-foot-high netting, some 260 yards away, that is designed to keep balls from going onto Washington Road, a main thoroughfare that abuts the range. After Love failed on two attempts, Woods shyly asked, "Should I try?" When Love nodded, Woods unsheathed his Cobra oversized driver to the delight of the spectators. Woods then smoothly rocked into his compact backswing and ripped a perfectly straight cannon shot that easily cleared the netting, causing the stands to erupt and drawing a smile from every player on the range.
If such feats have little to do with shooting low scores, Woods's practice-round partners at the Masters—a formidable collection including Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Nick Price and Gary Player—each said that the young man possesses as near to a complete package as they have ever seen in a player his age. All of the veterans are acutely aware of the precariousness of early success in their sport, yet all said that Woods possesses something extra, both physically and in his mental approach to the game.