AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods was the first golfer to arrive at the course on Saturday morning, a half hour before sunrise, and he went alone to a pitch-black driving range. He smiled and he grimaced and he worked. With eight holes left to play of the delayed second round, he stood right on the cut line. He hadn’t missed a cut in the past 22 Masters, one of the last streaks remaining from his now vanished days of domination. When it was over, he stood in the pouring rain and took a few questions.
He laughed at himself. He didn’t seem angry.
Someone asked him what happened on his last hole.
“I hit it right off the heel,” he said and then walked away.
He was 3 over. The cut line was 2 over. He could only wait and watch. He’d done everything he could do: wake up early, get his body worked on until it approached something like working, arrive before all the young millionaires to leave nothing to chance. He needed Justin Thomas or Sungjae Im to bogey at least one hole for the cut line to move to 3.
It’s funny what a sport can reveal. Yesterday, there was a 23-year-old amateur named Sam Bennett who came into the press room, all id and ambition, 4 shots off the lead and talking like he could win the whole thing. He was a delight to behold. He called the Crow’s Nest Butler Cabin, and didn’t recognize the name Ken Venturi, and sounded like he’d never heard of Bobby Jones until a dinner earlier in the week. When people asked what he planned on doing, he said he and all his college buddies were probably going to party. I felt like that was a polite way to say: crush some Bud Lights, maybe light some stuff on fire. Sammy Golf. Walking House Money.
“I’ve got a golf tournament that I can go out and win,” he said.
Bennett was born the year Woods won the 1999 PGA Championship and he finished the first two rounds of the Masters 11 shots better than Woods.
“The hard work’s done,” he said.
It was clear he really believed it.
Youth is a powerful force to behold. But so is aging. There’s a poem by Dylan Thomas about the conflict between youth and time that I thought about, with the image of a solitary accomplished Woods still grinding like someone might take his many accomplishments away. Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea. That’s it. Sang in my chains.
He knows things about glory and pain and determination that only time can teach the young powerful Bennett, as it has taught Tiger, as it taught Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan, as it has taught me and you. I’ve written this theme like six times in a row when watching Tiger Woods play Augusta because it’s the only story now. He is a walking circle of life. The only one true way is suffering. Swinging a driver before dawn. Leaning over a putt in the rain. Limping away to try it all over again.
The only reward, of course, is more suffering.
Tiger got his wish.
Thomas bogeyed two holes coming home, missing the cut himself, and he looked up into the rain and shook his head, old enough to know the cruelty of this game was a metaphor for life. The third round was scheduled to begin in a few hours, the temperature dropping, the rain coming down steady. Fans slipped and fell in the mud. The winner of this playing of the Masters would earn his title and jacket and money.
Twenty-three times in a row now Tiger has made the cut. It’s always seemed that he was on a deeply personal quest, and while he entertained the chase of Nicklaus’ 18 majors, there was something else fueling him inside. That fuel remains unseen. A mystery. He’s had every opportunity to save himself from the physical pain of simply playing golf, and the mental pain of knowing he can never play great golf again. And yet he’s out here in the rain.
It’s not clear what the rest of his season or career holds but he’s got two more rounds to play at Augusta National. Nothing about what he’s done in every event since his car wreck has been easy. He works harder than his younger competitors to be half the player he used to be, and instead of complaining or whining about that diminishment, he arrives first at a golf course and goes to work.
Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.