Glimpse of Tiger's magic again looks a false dawn

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The Independent Online

History suggests that Tiger Woods will not win the 75th Masters today. Famously, Woods was leading or tied for the lead after three rounds of all his 14 major victories. For all the ominous warnings of his second-round charge on Friday, Woods dropped off the leaderboard last night.

Nothing could be quite so simple with the former world No 1, of course. It is hardly like Rory McIlroy and the others ahead of Woods will be ruling him out. But after a 66 on Friday, his best score at Augusta since a 65 during his last Masters win in 2005, Woods could manage only a 74 yesterday to lie seven behind the young Northern Irishman.

As he attempts to rehabilitate his game and his reputation, there have been flashes from Woods before, notably a 66 in the third round of the US Open last year which led to nothing on the final day. Was Friday's outrageous burst of seven birdies in 11 holes just another flash in the pan?

Yesterday Tiger struggled to maintain the momentum. His long game was solid, not quite as precise as on Friday but certainly without the horrors that have punctuated his game this year. But on the greens nothing went his way. There have been times this season when it seemed he would never hole a crucial putt again. Some of his misses were shocking.

There was some of the old assurance on Friday, particularly when he slotted home a 12-footer on the 18th. In the third round, his stroke still looked good but he lipped out several times. A three-putt at the 11th cost a bogey, another at the 15th meant missing out on what has been an automatic birdie over the years.

A banana-shot approach around the trees at the 15th had been a rare sign of the old genius but the more the 35-year-old pushed to get back into contention, the less he achieved. Woods remains a work in progress and despite all the changes to he is making with new swing coach Sean Foley, the ultimate test is being able to trust his game under severe pressure with a major on the line. Only then will we, and he, know more about the state of his mind and game.

It is a sign of the times that it took a blistering run on Friday for Woods to become part of the narrative. The 75th Masters had plenty of storylines but for a day and a half Woods was not one of them. There were the new young guns leading the charge, with Rory McIlroy becoming the youngest halfway leader since Woods himself 14 years ago. There were the new monster hitters, led by the engaging Spaniard Alvaro Quiros. There was the 51-year-old Fred Couples and British interest from Luke Donald and Lee Westwood.

And the heart-warming story of Hideki Matsuyama, who is 19 and got here by winning the Asian Amateur last year. The only amateur to make the cut, he added a 68 and will feature in the Butler Cabin ceremony tonight. A student at Fukushi University at Sendai, the earthquake and tsunami could not have hit closer to home.

There was little conviction about Tiger's prospects at the halfway stage, although Foley was typically upbeat. "You're going to start seeing him playing shots that he hasn't hit in a long time," he said. "He's already put the pieces together. Now he's going to go play golf."

Woods said: "I'm just trying to put myself in the mix on Sunday. It's irrelevant who is there. My whole job is to give myself a chance with nine holes to go. I've been successful in the past by doing it that way."

Until he has a fifth Green Jacket and a 15th major title tonight, no one is willing to say that Woods is back. He will have to do it the hard way. No one, least of all the kids who were inspired by watching his 1997 Masters demolition, is prepared to hand him the title without a darn good fight.