- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2009

— CBS, the Cablinasian Broadcasting System, kept its cameras trained on Tiger Woods much of Saturday, even though he was as likely to win the Masters as the ghost of Ben Hogan. The world's greatest golfer began his afternoon seven shots behind the leaders, and by the time Jim Nantz cleared his throat he was nine back.

Uh, Tiger, the tournament's the other way.

It's strange watching Woods play Augusta National these days. Not so long ago, a Tiger round would be accompanied by cracks of lightning and crashes of thunder. In 1997, the first year he won here, he followed a 66 with a 65. In 2005, the last year he won here, he did likewise. The two times he won in between, '01 and '02, he had a 66 somewhere en route.

Nothing is ever truly easy at the Masters, but Woods made it look that way. Before he was done, he figured to have more green jackets than John Daly had wives.

But then the Lords of Augusta gave the course a makeover, in hopes of keeping it from getting trampled by technology, and suddenly Woods wasn't quite so dialed in. Oh, he has remained in the mix, finishing T-3, T-2 and sole second his last three times out. But it's not because he owns the place anymore; it's because he's the Best of All Time, and that's what the Best of All Time does in majors.

Now, though, the par-5s are birdie holes at best, not eagle holes they used to be for him. Now the extra yardage that has been tacked on here and there matters because, well, he doesn't drive the ball as far as he did when he was younger. His putting has been spottier, too.

That's why - and this statistic kind of stuns you - he has broken 70 only once in his last 16 rounds at the Masters. Even under the tougher conditions, it's hard to win shooting 72-71-71-70, as he did in '06, or 70-72-70, as he has done so far this year. Do that, and you open the door for a player - any player - who's having a hot week, a guy like Zach Johnson or Trevor Immelman or, this weekend, Kenny Perry or Angel Cabrera.

Let's face it, folks, this isn't a momentary blip. It's a pattern, a full-fledged trend. It's happened in four straight Masters… and it will probably continue happening unless Tiger figures something out about the New Augusta he hasn't figured out before - some different method of attacking it, some bold new strategy.

He could start, you would think, by playing the front nine better. Campbell, for instance, came out Thursday and birdied the first five holes. Woods has five birdies on the front in the first three rounds - and has been even par at the turn every day.

That might have been OK in other years, when the back nine - the two par-5s, in particular - was more hospitable, but it isn't OK this year. This year the course has been set up to yield more birdies and low scores, just like the good old days. Par golf buys you nothing in this Masters; two years ago it would have won you the trophy.

Anyway, Tiger, needing to make a serious move Saturday, proceeded to hook his tee shot on No. 1, complicated matters by three-putting and took a double bogey.

“Not a very good start, obviously,” he said. “[I] just put myself right behind the 8-ball.”

Then on No. 2, a par-5, he laid up with an 8-iron and “hit it about 12 yards,” he said. So much for that birdie opportunity.

A wayward tee shot on the sixth hole (from which he recovered), brought this response: “I thought it looked good, and it didn't end up good.”

Might be time for another round of Lasik surgery.

Speaking of which - surgery, that is - Woods appears to be suffering no ill effects from the repair job done on his left knee last year. So whatever's ailing him at Augusta, it isn't that. And frankly, you can talk all you want about him still having some rust or needing to get his competitive edge back, but the fact of the matter is he just doesn't own this course like he once did.

All week, Augusta fans have been waiting for Tiger to get on one of his rolls. They're still waiting. He got it going for a while in Round 1, birdieing 13, 14 and 15, but then his putter abandoned him. Ever since, he has seemed to follow every positive development with a negative one, to the extent of going birdie-bogey-birdie-bogey during one stretch Friday.

Still, Woods never stops trying to win a tournament, no matter how long the odds, no matter how desperate his situation. So he gathered himself Saturday and made three birdies in final six holes to get to 4 under, which actually left him tied for 10th.

“I'm very proud of that,” he said.

But it doesn't feel like he's in contention, even if he is Tiger Woods. It feels more like one of those Hail Mary deals. With Perry and Cabrera sitting at minus-11 - and showing no signs of the shakes - Woods would have to put up a 65 Sunday just to give himself a chance. And Tiger hasn't seen a 65 here since he was a newlywed, childless and still walking on his original left knee.

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