AUGUSTA, Ga. — The last loudest symphony was conducted by the patrons who formed a human tunnel from Augusta National’s 18th green to the scoring cabin behind the great oak tree, a combination of cheers and applause creating a canopy of adoration over the occupant underneath.
This, sports fans, is what we call the sound of Tiger.
If the Masters has always played to its own unique soundtrack, the chirping birds and rustling winds coming alive even through our television screens, the thwack of a golf ball or whoosh of a downswing seeming crisper here than anywhere else, then the sound of Tiger makes a music all its own. Bass drums and tubas needed, because he makes this place louder than anyone. And when he’s in contention? No microphone needed.
Tiger Woods brought out all the old hits Saturday, electrifying the Masters with the return of the golf game that used to win majors with regularity, one that has him in the final group of what promises to be a wild Sunday. The threat of thunderstorms moved the start time up to 7:30 a.m., moved the golfers into threesomes and has them teeing off on the first and 10th holes simultaneously.
Tiger, and his sound, will start at 9:20 a.m., alongside leader Francesco Molinari (13-under) and fellow American Tony Finau (like Tiger, 11-under).
Saturday, his sound was everywhere.
Distant roars heard by golfers trying to crack the leaderboard. Deafening ones heard by those in close range to six third-round birdies. The crunch of thousands of mini stones getting trampled by the hordes of people fast-walking as he moved from green to tee (no running allowed at Augusta), so intent as they were on not missing a single shot. The echo of so many hands pressing themselves to applaud him at every turn, hitting decibels far louder than for his playing partner Ian Poulter. The heavy but respectful silence as he readies for a swing, the humid Georgia air pregnant with anticipation and excitement. The crescendo of voices as his white-capped head starts bobbing up the 18th fairway. The chorus of whistles serenading his smiling face as he approaches the final green.
“A blast,” he would call it later.
No one else makes sounds like that, not on today’s golf landscape, and especially not at the Masters, where Woods once took this stage and changed this game forever. A record-setting win in 1997 that so stunned the architects of this tournament they “Tiger-proofed” the course in response, lengthening fairways and tightening greens to make the challenge more difficult. He would win three more green jackets anyway, poised not simply to overtake Jack Nicklaus’s all-time Masters mark of six, but Nicklaus’s all-time major mark of 18.
Life, of course, got in the way — time, injury and personal issues leaving Woods on this perpetual cycle of “will he or won’t he win a major again” conversation that got its annual start every year at the Masters. Yes, it got tiresome to fans complaining there were other golfers in the field; it probably got tiresome to Woods as well. But it all feels so justified now. So real.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here,” Woods said, sweat dripping from a brow with a deeper-set hairline than the last time he won here (in 2005), rivulets of perspiration nearly running into the throwback Nike mock turtleneck he was wearing, this one in lavender. “I’m looking forward to going out there tomorrow and competing. I’m able to compete at a high level again, after being out for a few years, and the experience of the last two major championships when I had a chance to win certainly helps.”
He tied for sixth at the British Open and finished second at the PGA last year before winning the season-ending Tour championship. Rediscovering that ability to close fuels his confidence now, a reminder of who he once was, of the red-shirted, fist-pumping bogeyman who scared the rest of the field into submission.
“It does help because I have won,” he said. “I’ve won with a totally different body than I have dealt with in the past. And that counts for a lot, that I put myself in position to win last year a few times and didn’t do it, but to lead wire to wire at East Lake and to do that under tough conditions against the hottest players all year, that gave me a lot of confidence going into the season. And I’ve built this season into where it’s at right now.”
Where it is now is on the cusp of a major title, a final round he could be halfway through by the time you read this, but promises to be compelling nonetheless. No matter what he is doing by then, nothing should diminish what he did in the third, a 5-under 67 that had this place positively thrumming, this palpable sense he might actually win giving those in attendance the feeling they were in on something big, that they were here for history, that Woods might get that elusive fifth green jacket and 15th career major, the ones he’s been chasing for more than a decade now. All around the course patrons whispered to each other, workers glanced at scoreboards and officials checked their numbers, all of them wondering the same thing: “What’s he doing now?”
What Woods was doing Saturday was putting himself in contention to win, a run of three straight birdies on the front nine announcing his threat is real, three more on the back nine (including the par fives on 13 and 15) bringing him within two shots of the overall lead.
Tiger Woods in the final group of the final round of the Masters.
That sounds pretty good.