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Unable to see Woods for the trees

Well the bookies got it right in the end.

Tiger Woods' Sunday trudge round Augusta was another indignity
Tiger Woods' Sunday trudge round Augusta was another indignity

As the 2012 Masters neared its conclusion, the two favourites were neck and neck. There was nothing between them as they came down the stretch, mano-a-mano in the greatest golf show on earth. It was just a pity that they were 16 shots off the lead.

Yes, things didn't quite work out as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy had planned. The Augusta stage had been set for a battle that would identify who would be considered the greatest player of the modern era, but they ended up scrapping for 33rd place.

You probably know it's not your tournament when you look up at the scoreboard and see that you're trailing far behind such non-luminaries as Brandt Snedeker, Scott Stallings and Sang-Moon Bae. Woods and McIlroy were meant to be the marquee names at this year's Masters tournament, but someone snipped the guy ropes and the tent came crashing down.

They were so far off the pace that they might as well have scratched from the tournament yesterday morning and had a crack at the Chattahoochee Country Club Sunday Medal instead. They hadn't done much of any note over the first three days at the Masters, so the best you could say of them over their final 18 holes was that they showed a bit of consistency. McIlroy closed out with a 76, Woods weighed in with 74. Touchingly, they were locked together at the finish, both five-over-par for the tournament.

At least McIlroy didn't have to suffer the agonies of his all-too-public meltdown at Augusta last year, when he started the final day with a four-stroke lead, then crumpled down the back nine and signed for a round of 80. No such luxury for Woods, whose every move, on and off the course, is studied, scrutinised and dissected.

After which process, the conclusion last night was that he hadn't suffered such a public humiliation since the day he buried the front end of his Cadillac Escalade in a Florida fire hydrant almost two-and-a-half years ago. Granted, the fall-out from that little adventure was considerably more significant than any he will suffer after carding half-a-dozen bogeys round a Georgia golf course, but there are still similarities between the two events.

You see, when Woods won at Bay Hill a couple of weeks ago, you could almost hear his fawning acolytes sigh with relief. Normal service had been restored and they could put Woods back on his pedestal. He was heading for the Masters as red-hot favourite again, and everything was right in their worlds.

Big mistake. Woods' driving in Augusta was as erratic as it had been on that fateful night in November 2009 when he decided to pop out to the local Spar in the Escalade. He strayed as far from the straight and narrow on the fairways as he infamously did in his personal life and the result was almost as ugly. He has always had the capacity to throw in the odd wild shot, but this was waywardness on an almost epic scale.

If there is anything good to be said about Woods' 2012 Masters it is that he mounted a decent damage-limitation exercise along the way. There was a time when Woods carding a 75 around the course where he collected his first major in 1997 would have been a notable event, but its distinction on Friday was that it could have been a heck of a lot worse. It was not the worst round of this professional career, but it was certainly the ugliest.

And he didn't do a lot to restore his reputation as a human being either. At an event where patrons' tickets carry stern warnings about decorous behaviour, Woods ignored just about every stricture in golf's etiquette book as he cursed and swore his way around the course. When his tee shot at the par-3 16th – where he holed one of the most famous putts in history a few years ago – his fall from grace was complete when he reacted to an errant tee shot by dropping his club to the ground and giving it an almighty whack with his foot.

Now as Billy Payne, the owlish Augusta chairman, had given Woods an excoriating and very public dressing down about his behaviour in the build-up to the 2010 Masters, you would think that he might have acted with more circumspection. Woods came to Augusta this year with a degree of public sympathy after Hank Haney, his former coach, had produced a controversially indiscreet memoir, but that evaporated with every "Goddam" he uttered as he made his way round the course.

Every golfer – every honest one at least – can understand the sudden rush of blood that follows a poor shot. Yet Woods compounded those lapses with a generally graceless air, scowling his way through the second day's play as he so often does when things aren't going to plan. When he reached into his golf bag to choose a club, his expression would make you think that his former caddie Steve Williams' last act before leaving must have been to widdle in the thing.

Small wonder that one well-respected American writer described Woods as "an embarrassment to his sport." A decade ago, when he came to Augusta on the first anniversary of his historic Grand Slam-clinching 2001 win (and promptly won again) such an assessment would be almost inconceivable.

But then, so would four rounds in the seventies. So would a failure to get a birdie at the par-5 15th on any day. After all he has been through in the past few years, Woods might take comfort just from being back in the field again, but there is little to be taken from the way he is playing right now. Least of all by those who backed him.

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