Tiger Woods and his mock turtleneck are back in contention at the Masters

In a shirt from a prior era of dominance, Tiger is just one shot off the lead at the midpoint of the Masters.

Objectively, it’s a bad shirt. It should have no province, not even the body of the youth baseball coach who spent most of his spring fighting back at critiques of Tom Izzo’s disciplinary tactics. Not even on the body of a former Navy SEAL (part-time).

Subjectively, it’s a magical shirt and a welcome sight on the person who played the greatest golf of all time, who is also cut, and also played the greatest golf of all time. Whether you wanted it or not, the mock returned.

Tiger Woods arrived at the 2019 Masters as the highest ranked green jacket winner in the field. We’re now 16 months into this comeback, what we assumed would be the last comeback attempt after several failures to launch. So it’s still a feat just being here and able to play, especially when he was telling others at the Champions Dinner in 2017 that he was finished. That he’s now the highest rated player among the champions in that room, which included Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, is a stunning turn beyond just the feat of being healthy enough to play.

Some of that is on Tiger, who got back to being the best ballstriker in the world last summer, and some of that is on those other names struggling to find it. Tiger may have the ranking and the history, but the era of showing up and immediately slotting somewhere in the top 10 on the leaderboard is gone. He’s had to cobble a new approach and it may not be the intimidating one you prefer from your nostalgia, but it’s been working the last 16 months. Tiger is competing again at the biggest events in the game and now he’s in contention at a third straight major. Of all those past champions, only Adam Scott is ahead of Tiger on the leaderboard after 36 holes and the margin is just one shot.

It has been 14 years since Tiger won a green jacket. That’s a really long time! He has so much history here so we go looking for signs, the positive ones. In his first three Masters wins, he opened with a 70 in the first round. This year, he opened with a 2-under 70. In his last Masters win, 14 years ago, the iconic image of that that winning moment featured another imposing mock collar.

On Friday, he dialed up a grey mock that powered a 4-under 68 while warding off a slide tackling security guard. In recent, snakebitten years, that would have been a broken ankle. Or maybe an achilles injury, like he suffered at Augusta National when attempting a recovery shot from the pine straw in 2011. This week, the grimace and limp lasted only moments before Tiger resumed his march to a birdie on the 14th hole. Tiger gave the the incident a terse “accidents happen” assessment after the round in what sounded like a clear attempt to excuse the security guard and calm down any angry backlash at the guy trying to do his job.

Following a 30-minute rain delay in the middle of a back nine heater, Woods finished up as the sun was setting behind the hills and pines on the west of the coures. The round of 68 could have been better. Tiger played the par-5s in even-par and his strokes gained on those holes is among the worst of the field to make the cut. He had makeable birdie putts at the 12th, 13th, 17th, and 18th that might, in a prior year, have Tiger walking off seething or at least disappointed about what could have been.

Instead, Tiger said he was not “bummed about” the missed putts and said he hit all of his lines, save for two poor strokes on the same hole. After missing a birdie chance at the last hole, he didn’t walk off bothered or deadpan but rather grinning as the patrons shouted encouragement in a human tunnel to the clubhouse. He looked extremely happy to be here and in the middle of it all again.

The zone Tiger is operating in at Augusta has changed. He is a 43-year-old with a fused back who said two years ago at a dinner, which is all he could participate in here, that he was done. You may want him simmering about a missed putt or anything less than a win because that was his M.O. from a prior life of dominance.

But that’s not how this works anymore. Time moves on and and your nerves are frayed and injuries happen and perspective is gained. Tiger knows he’s not the favorite to win with all the talent around him on this 2019 leaderboard. It’s harder than ever to win at the professional level and he is not as good as he once was when he did it at a rate we will never see again. You have to fashion some sort of new approach. He is a blend of his past achievements and recent embarrassments and failures. It’s a blend that has him in contention and one shot off the lead at the midpoint of the Masters. It’s a blend that has him grinning even after a missed birdie chance at the 18th hole. Tiger has evolved, except for that magical mock, which we know is at least one thing that will have him looking like it’s 2005 all over again this weekend at the Masters.

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