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A flock of Southern belles was waiting behind the Augusta National pro shop last Saturday, all gussied up and giggly about the evening to come.
The women made small talk as the golfers in the 76th Masters ambled by in various states of distress. Sergio García walked past with his newest love interest, recuperating after a 75 that sapped his spirit to fight. The engaged Jason Dufner arrived next, his eyes vacant after shooting what would be the first of weekend 75s.
At a few minutes past seven, the sound of oncoming metal spikes tore through the bucolic scene. Rory McIlroy, fresh off a third-round 77 that basically eliminated him from contention, wheeled around the corner, ignored the phalanx of sundresses and made a sharp right turn toward the parking lot.
"Oh my God, it's Rory!" one of the women shrieked as McIlroy planted himself on the seat of an Augusta National golf cart.
As the women began squealing, McIlroy's father, Gerry, broke into a wide grin at his son's latest Beatles moment, even if his mood was dour. McIlroy ignored the commotion. He sat stone-faced, staring straight-ahead.
The week had promised so much. The Masters was to officially launch the intergalactic rivalry between McIlroy and Tiger Woods on the game's grandest stage, and there would be no going back. Each had won a tournament in March in impressive fashion. Each had pronounced his game fit. Each said he was ready to win, then both spent the weekend flailing about in the B flight, out on Sunday almost three hours ahead of the leaders.
When Woods arrived at the 1st tee on Thursday, fresh off a five-shot dusting at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks earlier, the anticipation was thick. Patrons filled the clubhouse veranda, the teeing ground and both sides of the fairway. Paul Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion, stood beneath the large oak tree to watch, as did a handful of Augusta National members in green jackets and dark shades. Something special was about to happen. This would be the start of the coronation.
Woods lashed a screaming hook into the trees, scattering fans and sending a murmur through the gallery. The ball came to rest near the 9th fairway. On the par-5 2nd Woods sniped another drive into the trees and this time had to take a penalty drop. Though he scrambled for par at both holes, the pattern had been set: Woods leaned on his short game to rescue his foundering ball striking.
After Woods opened with 72, his agent, Mark Steinberg, lingered beneath the oak tree. It was suggested to Steinberg that his client probably should have shot 76. "That's being generous," he said.
Woods described a feeling of being caught between the instruction of his former coach, Hank Haney, and his current coach, Sean Foley. "Hank backswing, new downswing," Woods said. Whatever the diagnosis, he was simply not Masters-ready.