As Tiger Woods falls behind at the Masters, the spotlight changes

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Saturday is called Moving Day at the Masters Tournament because it’s when top-performing golfers attempt to move up the rankings to position themselves for a championship charge in the final round of Sunday.

The axiom held true for Australian Cameron Smith, whose four-under par 68 on Saturday moved him within three strokes of third-round leader Scottie Scheffler, who shot a determined and consistent 71 under the normal.

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

Since Tiger Woods arrived on the Augusta National driving range last weekend, he has dominated all conversations about the 2022 tournament and attracted huge galleries of spectators who have followed him from hole to hole as if no other golfer on the course didn’t matter.

But on Saturday afternoon, with Woods limping and working 18 holes and losing 16 strokes behind Scheffler, the focus for 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 a sense of reality set in and he fell to seven over par for the tournament and tied for 41st.

Woods’ return to competitive golf after a near-fatal car accident some 14 months ago has been inspiring and encouraging and a surprising success by any measure. But as the third round drew to a close, it was apparent that Woods’ comeback this week would have its limits. From the start of his third lap, Woods’ surgically repaired back seemed stiff, and traversing Augusta National’s many hillocks and mounts seemed especially taxing on his reconstructed right leg and ankle.

Most shockingly, his greatest strength – his putt, which has been the envy of his peers for a quarter of a century – has let him down. Woods putt three on his last three holes and hit a four putt on another hole.

After Woods left the 18th hole on Saturday and stepped out of public view, his gait got noticeably worse. He hobbled on a foot-high platform to address reporters and answered a question about the health of his back, which has had five surgeries.

“It’s not as soft and as loose as usual, that’s for sure,” he said.

But Woods, 46, knows he is being watched closely. Although he hasn’t always wanted to live his life in the spotlight as a model, he isn’t shy about taking that turn this week. When asked what he hoped to show sports fans 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 on his first four holes, which resulted in two pars, a bogey and a birdie. But on the fifth hole, he winced conspicuously after hitting a medium iron shot from 192 yards. His ball settled 65 feet from the hole, a distance Woods struggled to negotiate in a superb four putts, including a third putt four feet away that made almost a full revolution around the hole before spinning . There was another three putt on the ninth hole, which was set up by a bad approach shot that left Woods’ ball 60 feet up the hole.

Woods had recovered with consecutive birdies on the 12th and 13th holes and two routine pars on the following holes. But three more off-target approach shots led to the two bogeys and a double bogey on his final three holes – and nine more putts.

“It felt like I hit a thousand putts on the greens today,” said Woods, who spent some of his post-round time smiling sardonically 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 planning to run away with the tournament on Saturday sunset. He birdied the second, third, sixth and eighth holes to maintain the five-shot lead he held after Friday’s second round. Scheffler, the highest-ranked men’s player in the world, needed those early feats to stay well ahead of Charl Schwartzel, who played his first 10 holes under par to move into second place.

But Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, fell short with four back-nine bogeys. Smith, however, continued the outstanding play he showed in winning the Players Championship last month when he closed with birdies on the back two par-5 nines.

Scheffler avoided a big number on his last hole on Saturday after driving his tee shot deep into the woods along the fairway. Forced to take a drop and a one-stroke penalty, Scheffler then hit a long iron shot up the steep 18th hole hill that landed on the green but rolled just over it. Scheffler successfully executed a tricky chip down the hill and left a three-foot putt for bogey, 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, three month window when we get hot – and hopefully the majors fall somewhere within that window,” Woods said. “We take care of it in these windows. Scottie seems to be in that window right now.

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