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James Lawton: As tentative as a kitten, Tiger is close to point of no return


More than anything, it was like a funeral. There were more sighs than conversation and when the convention of the first tee dictated applause, it was subdued enough to be over almost as soon as it began.

If Tiger Woods didn't know it before he came out to repair some of the damage of one of his worst days on a golf course since he drove into a fire hydrant and watched both his life and his game break apart, he certainly knew it now.

The mourning was not for a great sportsman in continuing crisis but for one who might just have reached a point of no return – at least as someone in charge of his problems on and off the course.

It was not so much that he had failed to make his expected contribution to the 76th Masters – hailed as potentially the greatest in history – but that the very idea of it had been rendered bizarre. The scoreboard said the Tiger had merely fallen eight shots off the pace set by 52-year-old Fred Couples and the uncelebrated Jason Dufner. It was, you had to believe, the scantiest account of something that some of golf's heaviest figures saw as maybe the stripping away of the fragile moorings of an attempted recovery now in its third year.

Sir Nick Faldo, a winner here three times, described the new crisis facing Woods in even graver terms for his American TV audience. Amid suspicions that Woods would be fined by both the Masters Committee and the American PGA, and claims that a golfer of lesser reputation would have been frogmarched down Magnolia Drive had he thrown down and kicked his club, and sworn obscenely, as Woods did in his second-round 75, Faldo charged that arguably the most talented player of all time had lost both his game and his mind.

If that was withering, what followed was no less dismissive of the idea that under the swing coach of the moment, Sean Foley, and lifted by his victory at Bay Hill, the Tiger had moved a long way to rebuilding both his game and his psychology.

"He is one of the greatest players of all time," said Faldo, "and he hasn't a clue how to put the clubface on the ball right now. He's had a few snap hooks with the driver, he's blocked a few iron shots, his distance control is lousy and he can't hole a putt. He used to have an amazing ability to make things happen. When he drives to make things happen now, he puts himself under pressure – and it doesn't happen."

Faldo's litany of foreboding was relentless but, typically from a man who once said his ambition was to become a competitive machine and that he would hit a million balls if it gave him an advantage, it was mostly about the technique of moving the ball from one point to another. Less acute was his reaction to what others must have seen as clear evidence that the Tiger had rarely been less at peace with himself.

If there were moments of extreme anger and frustration, there were also flashes of despair – expressions that spoke of a man increasingly at a loss to deal with the pressure bearing down on him.

Before going out yesterday, he left a statement aimed perhaps at nullifying some of the worst effects of his often distraught body language. He said: "I just tried to give it everything I had on each and every shot, tried to stay focused and put the next shot where I wanted to put it. That wasn't the case most of the time but I was grinding hard."

In the warm sunshine of his third-round reappearance, his determination was little less than haunting. At times the once imperious Tiger seemed as tentative as a kitten. His first tee-shot was straight and near-perfect and a cause for palpable belief, but then he sighed and grimaced when his second shot flew to the right of the green. When he saved par with a firm putt he raised his club to acknowledge the applause.

Now, perhaps, he could go about the agenda he had announced amid the smoke and flames of the night before. "One of the neat things about this tournament," he declared, "is the 10-shot rule. Anyone can still win the tournament if they make the cut. Guys have won this tournament from five or six back going into the back nine."

It was a pretty thought, enhanced by birdies on the third and fourth holes, but by the turn and the march down to Amen Corner he was back to three over, and that was where he stayed – eight behind the leaders and, again, a million miles from where he used to be.