By HUBERT MIZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's called an 8-iron. Cute little golf weapon. Tiger Woods, so gifted and powerful, considers it his 155-yard club. For him, nothing legitimately qualifies as a short iron.
Tranquility had taken a Thursday powder. Wind became the Masters X factor. Swirling. Tricking. Frustrating. Even at Augusta National, one of the game's holiest temples, exotic winds can lead to X-rated outrage.
"&%*@!" smoked Craig Stadler.
Walrus had a quadruple-bogey 9 on No. 15. Even for Woods, the world's hottest and richest golfer, fast-changing effects of wind were sobering. Tiger used that 8-iron on back-to-back holes, one shot sadly fluttering 130 yards, the other rocketing 197.
What happened to 155?
"Strangest wind conditions I've felt at Augusta," said the 24-year-old Woods. He shot 75, tumbling seven strokes behind first-round leader Dennis Paulson. "If this were an 18-hole tournament, I'd be done. But it's going to be a long weekend with loads of challenges for all."
At the intoxicating 155-yard 12th hole, a gorgeous prayer stop on the Amen Corner journey, zephyrs were in a wild Thursday dance. Woods looked at pine tops, then flicked loose grass into the air. Measuring. Assessing.
Had to be an 8-iron.
After all, it was 155.
Woods was in need. He'd double-bogied the 10th hole. "It was 130 yards to the (green) front at the 12th but right into a funny breeze," he said. "I hit that 8 pretty well, but the wind stood it straight up. Coming down as though in an elevator shaft." Plunking into Rae's Creek.
Triggering a triple bogey.
Then came the flip side. At the 485-yard 13th, a well-thumped Woods drive left 197 yards to the hole. Straight downgush. "It was a different swing than on the 12th, where I had used soft arms and smoothness with the 8-iron. On the 13th, I did a full release, and it flew 197. Pin high."
Even he was astonished. Same club but almost a 70-yard difference between the 12th and 13th. After his soggy 6, Tiger produced a crispy birdie 4. A sweet comeback from sourness.
Back at the par-3 12th, the green is well removed from spectator locales, across Ben Hogan Bridge, providing competitors a rare swatch of oral privacy. It's too far away even for lip readers.
What did Tiger say after taking a dive, then three-putting? "You would have to be out there (to know)," he said, his Hollywood grin aflash even after a gritty round. "We are not the NBA (where coaches wear TV microphones)."
Not long ago, when Woods was 21 or 22, his reaction to double and triple bogeying over a three-hole stretch might've been to angrily bury that 8-iron deep into Georgia soil.
This is the adult Tiger.
"I played good," he said, a Stanford man using less than perfect grammar. "Just a couple of mistakes. Of course, a small error in judgment in the wind can mean big trouble.
"I look at the scoreboard my own way. I see myself as being right there, just needing a bit of a Friday rally and then a solid kick on Saturday and Sunday. I'm hitting shots nicely but burning so many (cup) lips with putts."
Belief so concrete.
"I'm different from two or three years ago," said a calm, non-perspiring Tiger, his all-gray outfit looking fresh after nearly five on-course hours. "It was good, the way I hung in. Refusing to let a 75 be goofed into a score of 80. Not erupting, like after doubling the 10th and tripling the 12th.
"Maturity can be wonderful."
Woods has been on an extraordinary run. Three tournaments won this year. Runaway ranking of No. 1 in the world. That 75 was his highest PGA Tour score in 12 months, since the final round of last year's Masters, a Sunday when another 75 left him tied for 18th place, nine behind winner Jose Maria Olazabal. In 69 PGA Tour rounds since, Woods had not been worse than 74.
No way he's dead meat.
Tiger overcame a 7-smack January deficit over the final seven holes to become champion at Pebble Beach. If he shoots 67 to 69 today, the rebound will be on. But little room for further errors. Thursday was especially funky. Overflowing with surprises.
What kind of odds, at pre-tee-off dawn, might Nevada have offered on Woods getting a three-stroke whipping from Tommy Aaron, a 63-year-old Georgian whose most recent PGA Tour win was the 1973 Masters?
X factor was swooshing.
"Between now and Sunday night, everybody will go through mistake-filled stretches," Woods said. "Hopefully, I've had my ugly run of holes. If I can get within four or five of the lead on Friday, that'll be fine.
"I would've preferred to shoot lower in round one. Sure, I'm a little behind. But it's okay. We've only played the first quarter."