By: Gary Van Sickle

AUGUSTA, Ga.—The patrons stood at the 18th green. Tiger Woods approached beneath a bright April sky as they rose to give him the ovation he deserved.

Tiger acknowledged the accolade but there was still work to be done. He walked onto the green and fixed the mark his approach shot left before it spun back off the front. He knew the shot he faced next. He’s had it before somewhere in those 99 other Masters rounds he played before Sunday.

Tiger didn’t take much time. He clipped a deft chip-and-run shot. As his ball neared the hole, the gallery’s cheers rose to a crescendo. What looked like a spectacular finish to a tough day—a hole-out!–turned into just another lip-out with the ball stopping a few inches past. A groan of surprise and disappointment turned into admiration and appreciation. The gallery members greenside rose from their folding seats again and gave Tiger another ovation.

Tiger marked his ball, leaving this big stage to amateur Neil Shipley. Tiger stood near the fringe, his right leg casually crossed in front of his left as he leaned on his putter with his right hand. It was a familiar pose, a statuesque pose.

After Shipley two-putted, Tiger tapped in for his par and got a third standing ovation. Why not?

He is the greatest golfer of our time, if not all time.

He met with the media a few minutes later by the clubhouse but took only five questions. None were about the Tiger-elephant in the room.

And it is a big one: Was this Tiger’s last Masters?

Woods surely wouldn’t have answered. Even he likely doesn’t know. Oh, he talked a good game and offered an upbeat look ahead. He discussed how he will prepare for Valhalla, Pinehurst and Royal Troon, the next three major championship sites this year. He said wants to “keep lifting” (his upper body already looks as if he’s gearing up for the Olympic snatch-and-jerk competition); “keep the body moving,” and “keep progressing.”

His swing and body language looked promising the first two days. On the weekend, even walking looked painful. When he emerged from the clubhouse scoring area, he had to go up three small steps on the way to the media interview area. He pressed on hand onto his thigh and had to work hard to pull himself up those steps.

Tiger blamed himself for not executing the shots he needed on the weekend after two sterling rounds in Thursday’s and Friday’s windy conditions enabled him to set the Masters record for most consecutive cuts made at 24. That mattered to him only because it gave him a chance to win. That chance ended Friday on the front nine when he finished bogey-double-double-bogey for 42.

He did not say his poor play in the much-calmer conditions was because his surgically repaired body didn’t him let him hit the shots he needed. Or that his body was too sore or battered from walking 36 hilly holes. It was his execution, he said, and he didn’t offer more details than that.

The questions will linger. At 48 with a fused ankle and a fused spinal joint, how much “progress” he can make? He hopes he’ll be able to work up to longer practice sessions. He’s always been a Ranger Rick guy who needs the repetitions. Will that ever be realistic for him? If this year’s next three majors underscore the point that he can’t win again, will he continue to compete?

Those answers await in his in-basket. Meanwhile, there is the reality that he shot 15 over par on the weekend in the tournament’s best weather. And that at times, it appeared he might not make it all the way around.

Sunday at the par-3 sixth, moments after making a triple bogey at the fifth, Tiger left an approach shot short, chipped to six feet and heeled a putt that went left of the hole. He knew it as soon as he struck it. When he has had back problems before, it affected his stance and his posture and, ultimately, his putting. Also, history is not on his side considering how few players have putted well into their 40s.

He made his second putt at the sixth for bogey, stood off to the side and removed his cap. His red shirt was drenched in sweat. He ran a hand over his head, held the cup out in front of him and stared at it briefly. Did he wonder if he’d be able to finish the round? Did he think, What have I gotten myself into? Or, Can I make it through 12 more holes?

Only Tiger knows. Give him credit for finishing 72 holes, something he hasn’t done in a real tournament in three years. Give him more credit for giving Shipley a day to remember from a Masters in which he finished as low amateur.

“Tiger made me feel really welcomed,” said Shipley, an Ohio State University player from the Pittsburgh area. “He was cool, chatting it up. Just kind of a casual round with Tiger, you know, other than you’re here at the Masters.”

When Woods brought up Oakmont, Pittsburgh’s famed U.S. Open site, Tiger said he liked the old Oakmont before the tree removal program. Shipley told him, “I’m not old enough to remember that Oakmont.” They both laughed.

So there’s that.

“It was a good week,” Woods said. “It was a good week all around. It was a good fight on Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately, yesterday didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted. Today, I thought I had in my system the way that Tom (Kim) is playing. (Note: Kim shot 66.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t produce it.”

As the players and caddies departed the 18th green, the spectators’ ovation continued and grew louder when Woods removed his cap and waved it toward the fans on either side of the green.

The Tiger Woods of old never did things like that.

Now he’s an old Tiger Woods who is just as competitive as ever but more appreciative. Of everything.
He may have glimpsed his golfing mortality last week. Everyone saw how difficult it was for him to walk 72 holes. That revives The Big Question.

Was this his final Masters? Tiger will decide that. Or his body will decide for him. (If it hasn’t done so already.)

No one knows when that will be. Not even Tiger, at least not yet.

If he does return to the Masters, Augusta National will be here waiting, dressed up in its finest shades of April, as usual.

Gary Van Sickle

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980, following the tours to 125 men’s major championships, 14 Ryder Cups and one sweet roundtrip flight on the late Concorde. His work appeared, in order, in The Milwaukee Journal, Golf World magazine, Sports Illustrated and He is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America. His email gvansick at aol dot com.

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