As Tiger Woods Falls Behind at the Masters, the Spotlight Shifts

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Saturday is called move-in day at the Masters Tournament because that’s when the top golfers try to move up the leaderboard to position themselves for a championship charge in Sunday’s final round.

The axiom held true for Australia’s Cameron Smith, whose 4-under 68 on Saturday put him within three shots of third-round leader Scottie Scheffler, who shot a determined and consistent 1-under 71.

But Saturday was also something else: a day of changing lights.

Since Tiger Woods arrived at the Augusta National driving range last weekend, he has dominated all talk of the 2022 tournament, drawing huge galleries of spectators who followed him from hole to hole as if no other golfer mattered.

But on Saturday afternoon, as Woods limped and worked through 18 holes and dropped 16 shots behind Scheffler, the focus of this year’s Masters changed.

Woods, who shot a 78 on a day when temperatures dipped into the 40s, was far from abandoned on the golf course. But some sense of reality set in and he fell to seven over par for the tournament and was tied for 41st.

Woods’ return to competitive golf after a near-fatal car accident approximately 14 months ago has been inspiring and encouraging and surprisingly successful by any measure. But as the third round drew to a close, it was clear that Woods’ comeback this week would have its limits. From the start of his third round, Woods’ surgically repaired back looked stiff, and traversing the many bumps and bumps of Augusta National seemed especially arduous on his rebuilt right leg and ankle.

Most surprisingly, his greatest strength, his putting stroke, which has been the envy of his peers for a quarter of a century, left him. Woods made three putts on his last three holes and had a four putt on another hole.

After Woods left the 18th hole on Saturday and stepped out of the public eye, his gait took a noticeable turn for the worse. He limped up onto a foot-high platform to address reporters and answered a question about the health of his back, which has been operated on five times.

“It’s not as snappy and loose as it normally is, that’s for sure,” he said.

But Woods, 46, knows he is being watched closely. While he hasn’t always wanted to live his life in the spotlight as a role model, he’s not shying away from that turn this week. When asked what he hoped to show fans of the sport at this year’s Masters, he replied: “Never give up. Always chase your dreams. And I fight every day. Every day is a challenge. Each day presents its own different challenges for all of us. I wake up and start the fight again.”

Woods’ troubles on Saturday began after he played reasonably well through his first four holes, which ended in two pars, a bogey and a birdie. But on the fifth hole, he grimaced conspicuously after hitting a middle iron from 192 yards. His ball settled 65 feet from the hole, a distance Woods struggled to negotiate on four impressive putts, including a third putt from four feet away that made almost a full revolution around the hole before turning. There was another three-putt on the ninth hole, which was caused by a poor approach shot that left Woods’ ball 60 feet uphill from the hole.

Woods had bounced back with back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th holes and two routine pars on the holes that followed. But three more wide approach shots led to two bogeys and a double bogey on his final three holes, and nine more putts.

“It’s like I put a thousand putts on the greens today,” said Woods, who spent some of his post-round time smiling wryly at his misfortunes. “I was trying different things, trying to find it, trying to get something. And nothing seemed to work.

Scheffler played his first nine holes as if he planned to take the tournament at sunset on Saturday. He birdied the second, third, sixth and eighth holes, allowing him to maintain the five-shot lead he had after Friday’s second round. Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked male player, needed those early heroics to stay well ahead of Charl Schwartzel, who played his first 10 holes under par to move up to second place.

But Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, flopped with four bogeys to his back. Smith, however, continued the fine play he had displayed in winning last month’s Players Championship when he closed out with birdies on both of the par-5 nine holes.

Scheffler avoided a big number on his last hole Saturday after hitting his tee shot deep into the woods off the fairway. Forced to take a drop and a one-stroke penalty, Scheffler blasted a long iron down the steep hill of the 18th hole that landed on the green but rolled past it. Scheffler successfully executed a delicate downhill chip and left a three-foot bogey putt, which he sank.

Woods was impressed with Scheffler, who has won three times this year on the PGA Tour.

“We all wish we had that two- or three-month window when we get hot, and hopefully the main races fall somewhere in that window,” Woods said. “We take care of that on those windows. Scottie seems to be at that window right now.

Sungjae Im was in third place at four under par for the tournament and five shots behind Scheffler. Shane Lowry was next at two under after 73 in the third round.

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