Tiger Woods left the Augusta National site on Sunday afternoon without his green jacket, knowing only too well that he may never have the opportunity to take it with him again.
Oh, it will always be there for him in the Champions locker room, waiting for his next visit, whether it's a friendly round of training or the Masters tournament he won five times.
It is Dustin Johnson who can now enjoy the booty of victory, among the many traditions associated with Augusta National and the Masters.
Woods, 44, has pondered his golf mortality before, especially in the spring of 2017 when his back problems were so acute that he consulted experts in London before opting for last-breath spinal fusion surgery.
We all know the rest: he came back and had a remarkable 2018 season in which he competed multiple times and won the Tour championship. He won the Masters 2019 for his fifth title in Augusta, his 15th major and the first in 11 years. and he later captured the Zozo Championship to tie Sam Snead with 82 PGA Tour wins.
After a strong performance at the Presidents Cup last December, Woods appeared to be on track to break Snead's record and experience more moments of fame.
All of that seems more distant now, which is why Woods was so emotional and contemplative last week.
In his pre-tournament media session, he was almost moved to tears and described the scene of his 2019 Masters victory. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player later announced that Woods was different than they had ever seen him at the Champions Dinner. He had a cordial chat and admitted that he had to drive by on the way to the club that evening, premises full in his head.
He got off to a good start on his 23rd Masters appearance but was then doomed by the things that are very real to him today: cool temperatures, a break between rounds, lots of golf. Woods was eliminated from the tournament at the beginning of the third round and had to play it out on Sunday.
The 10 on the 12th hole – his highest score as a pro when he hit three balls at Rae & # 39; s Creek – only added to the disappointment.
AP Photo / Chris Carlso
Then something strange and wonderful happened. Instead of sulking – and who could blame him if he did? – Woods went back to work. He has birded five of the last six holes. He had a feasible eagle putt on the 13th, was tight at 15, hit stiffly at 16, and hit nice approaches at 17 and 18.
He turned his highest Augusta National score to date to a 76, which may not seem like much, but was certainly impressive given the circumstances. Imagine if Woods did that on Thursday or Friday. Even a muted, quiet Augusta National would have hummed.
"He's Tiger Woods, isn't he?" Said Shane Lowry, who played with Woods for the first two rounds and again on Sunday. "He's the best ever." I don't think it is important to him whether he is 30th or third here. All he seeks is victory. What a finish. He seemed to hit every shot stone dead for the rest of the round. & # 39; & # 39;
One of the underrated aspects of Wood's career is his will, his pride. The wins, the majors, the records … they get the attention. But Woods made 142 consecutive cuts at one point. He's never missed a professional cut at the Masters. Only this year has he exceeded 20 cuts worldwide in his 23-year career.
The question of his motivation for closing the holes on Sunday could be asked at this point in his career. What remains to be done He'll be 45 when he tees it off at the Farmers Insurance Open probably in January. The effort to prepare for tournaments is real and was shown again at the Masters.
Tiger Woods bangs five of his last six holes to finish the Masters high at 1 under.
Woods is caught between the need to play more tournament rounds and the knowledge that if he overdo it, he will be ineffective. The same applies to practice. He has to work on his game. However, hitting too many balls becomes a physical problem that he would then pay a price for.
After his last Sunday, in a situation where such a question is awkward, I tried to ask Woods about his motivation, given his work and the struggles he is facing.
"Well, there are days when I'm just mentally – it's hard to push than others just because it's just physically – my body has moments when it just doesn't work the way it used to," he said . "No matter how I try hard, things just don't work the way they used to, and no matter how much I push and demand from this body, sometimes it just doesn't work.
"Yes, it is sometimes more difficult than others to be motivated. Because things just hurt and have to deal with things that I have never had to deal with before. & # 39; & # 39;
Woods waited for the green jacket ceremony to do his homage to Johnson, and he seemed to be enjoying every moment. He later tweaked the newly crowned champion with a tweet expecting Johnson to serve sandwiches at next year's Champions Dinner, a nod to the winner's comment earlier in the week that those sandwiches are his favorite thing in the club.
Looks like we have sandwiches for next year's champions dinner! Congratulations @DJohnsonPGA and welcome to the club. pic.twitter.com/amOfc2kVXG
– Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) November 15, 2020
There's no Hero World Challenge to worry about in December as the event has been canceled. There isn't a long trip to Australia for the Presidents Cup, where he was the best player last year, but even there, back stiffness led him to skip all sessions on Saturday.
Playing these events late last year had an impact on his preparation for 2020. He finished ninth at Farmers Insurance and never got close to that shape again, despite shutting down the entire three-month pandemic to get fit.
In the seven events after the shutdown, his best result was a tie for 37th place at the PGA Championship. He finished 38th in the Masters. It was only the third time that he ended up outside the top 20 as a professional in Augusta.
"He's been working pretty hard this week," said Woods caddy Joe LaCava. "If he continues to do that, there will be some good times next year." He drove well for the most part this week, hitting many different shots, the tall bombs, the small, low knives. He works well on the ball and feels pretty decent. If he can stay healthy, there have been some good signs this week. & # 39; & # 39;
There probably couldn't be a better person in Woods' corner than LaCava, who has remained remarkably positive even through the darkest of times.
Without worrying about tournament golf, Woods has less on his plate. He has some corporate obligations, equipment tests, and sponsorship obligations. He will no doubt hit the gym and do his best to get fit for 2021.
When he comes back, the idea of forming the U.S. Olympic golf team, or even the U.S. Ryder Cup team, is far more distant now than it was when those events were due to take place in 2020, and he was about to face both.
But he will always have the masters, and at least this time it's not that far away.