As Tiger Woods Falls Behind at the Masters, the Spotlight Shifts

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Saturday is called moving day at the Masters Tournament because that is when top-performing golfers try to leapfrog up the leaderboard to position themselves for a championship charge in Sunday’s final round.

The axiom held true for Cameron Smith of Australia, whose four-under-par 68 on Saturday moved him to within three shots of the third-round leader, Scottie Scheffler, who shot a determined and steady one-under-par 71.

But Saturday was also something else: a day of shifting spotlights.

Since Tiger Woods arrived on the Augusta National practice range last weekend, he has dominated all conversation about the 2022 tournament and attracted huge galleries of spectators who followed him from hole to hole as if no other golfer in the field mattered.

But Saturday afternoon, as Woods limped and labored through 18 holes and fell 16 shots behind Scheffler, the focus of this year’s Masters changed.

Woods, who shot a 78 on a day when temperatures dipped into the 40s, was far from abandoned on the golf course. But a certain sense of reality set in as well as he fell to seven over par for the tournament and dropped into a tie for 41st place.

Woods’s return to competitive golf after a near-fatal car crash roughly 14 months ago has been inspirational and heartening and a startling success by any measure. But as the third round came to a close, it was evident that Woods’s comeback this week would have its limits. From the start of his third round, Woods’s surgically repaired back looked stiff, and traversing Augusta National’s many hillocks and mounts seemed especially painstaking on his rebuilt right leg and ankle.

Tiger Woods after making his tee shot on the third hole.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Most shocking, his greatest strength — his putting stroke, which has been the envy of his peers for a quarter century — deserted him. Woods three-putted his final three holes and had a four-putt on another hole.

After Woods had left the 18th hole on Saturday and moved away from public view, his gait worsened noticeably. He hobbled onto a foot-high platform to address reporters and answered a question about the health of his back, which has been operated on five times.

“It’s not as limber and as loose as it normally is, that’s for sure,” he said.

But Woods, 46, knows that he is being watched closely. While he has not always wanted to live his life in the spotlight as a role model, he is not shying away from that turn this week. Asked what he hoped to show sports fans at this year’s Masters, he replied: “Never give up. Always chase after your dreams. And I fight each and every day. Each and every day is a challenge. Each and every day presents its own different challenges for all of us. I wake up and start the fight all over again.”

Woods’s troubles on Saturday began after he had played reasonably well during his first four holes, which ended in two pars, a bogey and a birdie. But on the fifth hole, he grimaced conspicuously after hitting a middle iron shot from 192 yards. His ball settled 65 feet from the hole, a distance Woods struggled to negotiate in a stunning four putts, including a third putt from four feet away that made nearly an entire revolution around the hole before spinning out. There was another three-putt on the ninth hole, which was set up by a poor approach shot that left Woods’s ball 60 feet uphill from the hole.

Woods had recovered with back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th holes and two routine pars on the succeeding holes. But three more off-target approach shots led to the two bogeys and a double bogey on his three closing holes — and nine more putts.

“It’s just like I hit a thousand putts out there on the greens today,” said Woods, who spent part of his post-round time grinning sardonically at his misfortunes. “I was trying different things, trying to find it, trying to get something. And nothing seemed to work.”

Cameron Smith after making par on the ninth hole.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Scheffler played his opening nine holes as if he planned to run away with the tournament by sundown Saturday. He birdied the second, third, sixth and eighth holes, which allowed him to maintain the five-stroke lead he had held after Friday’s second round. Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked male player, needed those early heroics to stay well ahead of Charl Schwartzel, who played his first 10 holes in thee under par to surge into second.

But Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, fizzled with four back-nine bogeys. Smith, however, continued the sterling play he had exhibited in winning last month’s Players Championship when he closed with birdies on both back-nine par-5s.

Scheffler avoided a big number on his closing hole Saturday after lacing his tee shot deep into the woods alongside the fairway. Forced to take a drop and a one-stroke penalty, Scheffler then knocked a long iron shot up the steep hill of the 18th hole that landed on the green but trundled just over it. Scheffler successfully executed a delicate chip back down the hill and left a three-foot putt for bogey, which he sank.

Woods has been impressed with Scheffler, who has won three times this year on the PGA Tour.

“We all wish we had that two-, three-month window when we get hot — and hopefully majors fall somewhere along in that window,” Woods said. “We take care of it in those windows. Scottie seems to be in that window right now.”

Sungjae Im was in third place at four under par for the tournament and five strokes behind Scheffler. Shane Lowry was next at two under par after a third-round 73.

Sungjae Im, on No. 18, was in third place heading into Sunday’s final round.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

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