Tiger the uneasy genius finds the reasons to believe again

James Lawton
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The Independent Online

It was scarcely a half-sentence of heightened body language but the author was Tiger Woods. So of course a roar of anticipation swept up from the second green and rolled across Augusta National.

It was scarcely a half-sentence of heightened body language but the author was Tiger Woods. So of course a roar of anticipation swept up from the second green and rolled across Augusta National.

The Tiger had thrown up his arms to celebrate what he thought was a certain eagle but the ball rested on the lip of the cup. Deliverance from crisis had to wait. Indeed, there was just one certainty. It was that we had long passed the point where any other status report on the game of still possibly the greatest golfer the world has ever known would be an escape from reality. Woods knows it well enough. Every fibre of his body brought confirmation as he vainly chased down the doomed eagle.

Still, if he continues to look desperately for the sublime touch which brought him three Masters green jackets before his relentless annexing of major titles stopped dead two years ago, there were other moments yesterday when he gave himself reason to believe again.

Driven off the course by thunder on Thursday night at four over and nine shots behind the first-round leader, Justin Rose, with four holes to play, Woods struck back with a birdie on the 15th. Then on the 17th and 18th we saw flashes of the classic Woods, saving putts of dash and authority. He took a hasty breakfast, spent a few minutes on the practice range and went to the first tee buoyed by cries of "Come on Tiger, you can do it" and, perhaps inevitably, "You still the man."

Maybe, maybe not. The drive said yes, a beautiful strike to the middle of the fairway. The wedge said yes, floating through the balmy morning air and landing eight feet away, pin high. But the putt said no. His shoulders wilted as the ball turned away from the hole. Down to the second hole - the longest on the course at 575 yards - public confidence in the hero was plainly ebbing. When a women was struck by a ball, a group of spectators yelled, "It's the Tiger." But it wasn't. It was the currently hapless Thomas Bjorn, and again Woods had hit a perfect tee shot.

His second shot went to the right of the pin and the putt from 20 feet carried some of the old conviction, but that moment passed with another sigh and another slump of shoulders. Woods tapped in the ball with something like distaste, and walked to the third with a face reminding you of the previous night's thunder.

Defiantly, Woods says that everything is "cool". His people pour scorn on various lunges at the reason for his demise. Some say he has a growing gambling habit that is threatening the meticulously ordered world from which the first rush of his talent came so overwhelmingly. Some say the responsibilities of an impending marriage are tugging at his old certainties. But the Tiger simply grimaces and talks of "mass hysteria."

Before the first round he declared: "As far as I'm concerned there is no urgency about my situation. You can't look at it like in that way. If you do, you wont win. I've never looked at a major championship like that. You look at it as a long marathon and you go out there and play one shot at a time, and you really try to stay as patient as possible. That's all you can do. Hopefully, you're around on Sunday with a chance.

"Any other approach throws your rhythm off, you're concentration is not going to be right, you're not going to be able to stay on an even keel like you have to in major championships." You couldn't help think of such a resolve as the storm gathered on Thursday night, when the Tiger went into a great bush to prod out a ball and emerged in the furies of a cleaning up operation. He tore off his cap and rubbed his head, removed the vegetation from his shirt. He was as far from the winning Tiger, the surreal Tiger, that we had perhaps ever seen.

Yesterday he was calmer and there was no question that the basics of his game, for a few holes at least, were standing up well. On the third tee we saw another perfect drive. He found the notoriously sloping green with a deft chip and his 20-foot putt stopped just inches away. Just a touch of frustration, here but overall his own demand for patience was being met with some determination.

At the fourth there was a moment of breakthrough - or least it was pretty to think so as the Tiger, a smile at least breaking across his face, waved his putt sword-like to celebrate a 15-foot uphill put. Tiger was two under for the day, and maybe some prayers were being answered well in advance of Amen Corner. But the pretty thought turned ugly soon enough. He bogeyed the seventh and for a moment there was real pain on his face.

You can talk of patience day after day. You can say that the good days will come again because you have the talent and the nerve, and that all you have do is wait. It's tremendous theory but as we have seen these last two days the execution is a little trickier. Each time you miss a putt or a fairway that in the old days could, you fancied, be accomplished in your sleep, another doubt comes. For the moment Tiger waits for more than a breakthrough. He waits to re-invent himself.