Augusta (United States) (AFP), Apr 9 – Scottie Scheffler maintained his lead early in the third round of the Masters on Saturday as Tiger Woods’s hopes of a victorious return from career-threatening leg injuries evaporated with a third-round 78.
Woods, 14 months removed from a car crash that left him with injuries so severe he feared he might lose his right leg, saw his hopes of a stunning comeback for a sixth green jacket come undone on Augusta National’s notoriously difficult greens.
The fact that the 46-year-old was even able to tee it up — and make a 22nd consecutive Masters cut — was astonishing.
But at nine off Scheffler’s lead to start the day, Woods knew he needed something sensational to give himself a chance come Sunday, and instead he posted his career-worst round at the Masters, surpassing the 77 he shot in the third round of his 1996 debut as an amateur.
“It was like putting practice, I hit about a thousand putts out there,” said Woods, whose prior mastery of the unforgiving, undulating greens of Augusta helped him to five Masters titles.
“I didn’t think I hit it all that bad. I just had absolutely zero feel for the greens.”
Woods’s seven-over par total of 223 saw him walk off the course 18 shots behind world number one Scheffler, who was three-under for the day and 11-under for the tournament through 11 holes.
Australian Cameron Smith was six-under through 14 holes and 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel was five-under through 11, with Ireland’s Shane Lowry four-under through 12.
But, once again, it was Woods who drew the spotlight on a cold, windy day.
A three-putt at the opening hole proved a harbinger, a birdie at the second — where his shot out of a greenside bunker barely missed finding the cup for eagle — proving only a short respite.
From the fairway at the fifth, Woods left himself 65 feet, and he could only watch in disbelief as his three-foot bogey effort circled the cup and stayed up.
Bogeys at the ninth and 11th followed before he drained a 14-foot birdie at the 12th and two-putted from 27 feet for birdie at the par-five 13th.
The thousands following Woods’s every move tried to will him on, cheering and shouting encouragement at every hole, but he closed his round with bogeys at 16 and 17 and another double-bogey at the last.
“I felt like I didn’t really hit it that bad, but I had four three-putts and a four-putt,” Woods said. “I did what I needed to do ball-striking wise, but I did absolutely the exact opposite on the greens.
“I just could not get a feel.”
While Woods acknowledged on Thursday that just making through his first competitive round in 17 months was a victory of sorts, he made it clear he would be looking for better things on Sunday, like getting himself back to even par.
– Confident Scheffler –
Meanwhile, newly minted world number one Scheffler had maintained the five-shot advantage he built on Friday.
Scheffler rapped in a four-foot birdie at the second and drained an eight-footer at the third before his lone early miscue, a five-foot miss for a bogey at the fourth.
He rolled in a 17-foot birdie on the par-three sixth and birdied the par-five eighth, seemingly unstoppable on a day when the chilly winds were drying out and firming up the course.
The 25-year Scheffler has rocketed to the top of the world rankings with his first three career victories in his last five starts.
A triumph at the Phoenix Open in February launched the run, and he added wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC Match Play.
Scheffler, who came from off the pace in his two stroke-play tournament victories, insisted his commanding lead was not a source of pressure.
“If anything, it gives me more confidence,” said Scheffler. “As long as I’m committed to everything, everything should be fine. The rest really isn’t up to me.”