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Tiger is lurking and leaders are nervous

Bill Plaschke

April 13, 2008|Bill Plaschke

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Where is Tiger Woods?

That's what the impatient patrons of Augusta National are asking on this ugly Saturday, mud splattered on their chilly legs, water seeping into their tiny socks, umbrellas clacking through the pine needles.

Where is Tiger Woods?

Where is the fist pump? Where is the roar? Where is the, you know, charge?

Finally, as afternoon turns to evening, sitting high above the 18th green, I think I spot him.

Back up the fairway, surrounded by a tall and imprisoning grove of pine trees, I glimpse a swatch of white shirt and a gleaming club head.

"Is that him?"

"What's he doing?"

Suddenly, the gleaming club head moves, and the white shirt begins bouncing, and . . . plop.

Out of nowhere, a white ball falls from the sky and lands on the middle of the green.

No idea where it came from. No idea how it got there.

No sound. Only fury.

Yeah, that's how I found Tiger Woods, ending his day with an impossible shot for an impossible save to move up to fifth place entering the final day of what some might feel is his Masters Impossible.

Not me.

Not any of the other soggy folks who followed him here as he skidded and scattered and stiffed his putts and still shot a round-best 68.

Not anybody who looked into his calm stare afterward and heard him say, "I put myself right back in the tournament."

Can he make up six strokes today to catch leader Trevor Immelman? Not impossible.

Nick Faldo caught Greg Norman from that precise distance here in 1996. A man named Jack Burke won in 1956 after trailing by nine strokes during the final round.

"It doesn't take much to make a high number out here," Woods said.

Can he pass up the other three guys ahead of him, guys named Snedeker and Flesch and Casey? Not impossible.

Those three golfers have no major wins and just five PGA victories among them. Perhaps nowhere in sports does inexperience matter as it does Sunday at Augusta.

"Anything can happen," Woods said. "You can shoot yourself right out of it and you can put yourself right back in it."

Can he overcome the stigma that he has never come from behind after 54 holes to win a major championship? Not impossible.

Woods has mounted big comebacks on big stages, coming from behind during the final round to win the 2000 PGA in a playoff, and coming from six holes down to win the 1994 U.S. Amateur.

This is what Woods does, right? He breaks records, he sets standards, he chases greatness.

And on days like Saturday, he even does it wearing blue rain pants, which somehow remained pressed and unsullied by rain or mud.

"Are we scared of him?" said Paul Casey, in fourth place, two strokes ahead of Woods. "I don't know if we're scared of him. He's just so good."

Earlier this week, some of the tour veterans showed what Woods can do to the mind -- they were all but conceding him the Grand Slam even before the Masters' first tee.

Can today's leaders be stronger?

They all saw how Woods struggled with his putter Saturday and still put pressure on them. They will all be looking over their shoulder again today.

"I know Tiger is going to go out there and shoot a four or five under tomorrow . . . that does not bode well for us if we think we're going to be able to shoot one or two under and win this golf tournament," Brandt Snedeker said.

All four of the leaders had at least one bogey Saturday. Woods has not had a bogey since early Friday afternoon.

All four of the leaders had difficulty with their approach shots to the tricky greens. Woods' approaches were near perfect.

It was what happened next that messed him up.

"I hit the ball well all day, hit a lot of good putts that didn't quite have the right speed or the right line," Woods said. "It was just a touch off, and you're going to pay the price."

A touch? For four consecutive holes on the front nine, he missed birdie putts of 15 feet or less, and it showed.

On the fifth hole, he missed a putt that was so close, so frustrating, he hit himself with his club in anger.

On the sixth hole, he missed another birdie putt that had him muttering to the sky.

On the seventh hole, he missed a birdie putt and shouted an expletive.

On the eighth hole, Woods missed a short putt for birdie, and the groans echoed.

Finally, on the 17th hole, he hit an approach so impeccable, he could basically tap it in for the birdie.

"I could read that one," he said with a sarcastic laugh.

He finished his day with an 18th-hole tee shot that disappeared in the tall pines . . . only to reappear in the middle of that 18th green.

After playing it safe for most of the afternoon, Woods was giving us all a preview of what we'll see today.

"I just had to fit it," he said of the shot that somehow cleared a small gap in the trees. "I said, 'You know what, either you're making six or you're making four, one of the two. Let's go ahead and try to make four here.' "

Tiger Woods going for it. Tiger Woods bringing that attitude into a Sunday that is supposed to feature dry greens and windy skies.

The sort of day first-timers don't want. The sort of day Woods loves.

All four of the leaders benefited from the rain-slowed grounds Saturday, including that round-changing shot by Immelman that stopped rolling just short of Rae's Creek.

They won't have that break today. They will have to beat Woods at his chaotic, pressure-filled best.

Amid muted cheers and close misses, he was hard to find for much of Saturday.

You won't be able to miss him today. Not at home on television, not here in the green folding chairs, and not in the minds of the leaders who are chasing him to win the Masters.

"Who is the guy in fifth place?" Snedeker said.

"Oh, Tiger Woods, yeah, that guy."

Yeah, that guy.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@ latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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