The Front Row with Jim Litke April 12, 2010
AUGUSTA, Ga. - The question hanging over the Masters all week was straightforward: Could Tiger Woods change?
The short answer: He can't.
A fourth-place finish at Augusta National would be the highlight of a career for some guys, and a mild disappointment for others. Woods is not one of them. It pained him every time he failed to win long before his SUV went pin-balling down the driveway and deposited him at the punchline of late-night TV jokes for five solid months. If anything, losing this tournament stung more than all the previous setbacks here rolled into one.
Woods walked off the 18th green Sunday with a final-round 69 and 279 total, seven strokes on the wrong side of rival Phil Mickelson's winning 272. It marked the first time Woods shot four rounds under par at the Masters - a tournament he's won four times - and walked away without a green jacket.
"I only enter events to win," he said, "and I didn't get it done."
Gone was much of the grace he displayed in losing before, replaced by a distant stare and an emotional state that can be best described as mechanical. Someone asked whether the attempt to control his temperament had extracted too big a toll.
"I think people are making way too much of a big deal of this thing," he replied. "I was not feeling too good."
Woods was talking about his comfort level on the golf course, but his eyes were smoldering. Controlling his emotions at that moment appeared to be every bit as difficult as during the roller-coaster, birdie-and-bogey-filled adventure he'd endured for the previous five hours.
Woods angrily ticked off a litany of shots that hadn't come off the way he planned - "snipes ... quacks ... cuts" - beginning with his opening tee shot on a sparkling Sunday afternoon that once held so much promise.
"I don't know how people think you can be happy about that," Woods said finally. "These are not things I normally do. So I'm not going to be smiling and not going to be happy."
At that point, Woods left us to wonder whether the sullen face he turned to the world mirrored how he felt inside.
He never had more eyeballs trained on him than when he pulled the driver back for his first tee shot on Thursday. He sent that rocketing long and true down the first fairway. When he papered over three bogeys with a birdie and two eagles and brought back a 68, the galleries screamed themselves hoarse.
Woods got the same reception Friday and looked even sharper. If you closed your eyes and just listened to the roars, or the questions he got in the interview room afterward, it felt like Woods and his mastery of this confounding game had never left.
But he knew better.
"As the week wore on," Woods said, "I kept hitting the ball worse."
Not surprising, perhaps, his temper began cracking through the calm facade every time a hole in his game opened up. He stopped in mid-curse when he pulled an iron at No. 14 late Friday afternoon. By midday Saturday the microphones caught him at No. 6 yelling at himself, "Tiger, you suck!"
Yet even as Mickelson began his charge from five strokes off the lead late that afternoon, it stirred the competitor in Woods. He made five birdies of his own during a wearying back nine and appeared to right himself. But there was this telling exchange with reporters afterward:
"How is the mental focus?"
"It's fine," Woods said. "That's never a problem."
"Playing three days in a row isn't getting ..."
Woods cut the questioner off.
"It's not a problem," he nearly blurted out.
But Bobby Jones, who founded the Masters and insisted on a gentlemanly code of conduct that everyone of his successors has taken pains to enforce to this day, once said this about the game:
"Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course, the space between your ears."
There's no way to know, of course, what's going on in that space of Tiger's. No word, either, on where Woods intends to play next or whether he plans to change anything based on his first real outing in public since he pulled the rug out from under himself.
"I'm going to take a little time off and re-evaluate things," Woods said.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org