Ostensibly the only golf that mattered in the United States yesterday was the final round battle for the Shell Houston Open.
But a thousand miles away from the Lone Star State, there was talk of nothing else but Tiger Woods and how he will handle his 2 pm interrogation by the world’s golfing media today.
As Padraig Harrington fought losing battle with a pull in Texas and racked up two double bogeys and four bogeys in five over par 77 to slip back into the Huston posse on one-under par, Woods dipped his toe in the waters of social reinsertion once more when he strode onto the brand new driving range that has sprung up on the old car park at Augusta National.
The sense of general uneasiness was palpable as the disgraced world number one hit around a dozen shots under the gaze of his coach Hank Haney and walked to the putting green where he chatted briefly with his frequent Ryder Cup partner, Jim Furyk.
Minutes later he fell into an emotional embrace with Mark O’Meara, the 1998 Masters champion, who was just coming off the ninth green.
Joining his one-time mentor for a spin around the fabled back nine, Woods lashed a couple of tee shots down the 10th hole and looked on as O’Meara pulled his effort badly.
Turning to the gaggle of onlookers who had gathered to watch Woods tee off, O’Meara smiled and and joked: “I gagged on that one. I’m not used to playing with this kid.”
If O’Meara felt nervous as he joined his former protege, one can only imagine how jittery Woods will feel when faces a barrage of compromising questions this afternoon before the ultimate examination of his game on Thursday.
Major champions Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange have no doubt that it will be more difficult that anything Woods has attempted so far.
“I think we’re going to see a humbled and humiliated Tiger Woods,” Azinger told ESPN. “I think he’s going to be accessible to the crowd, possibly for the first time ever. Yeah, he’ll put his blinders on when he gets inside the ropes, but it’ll be a different Tiger.
“The most intriguing thing about this whole thing is that we’re talking about the greatest player who’s ever played the game. And he’s never faced anything like this. I don’t think he has no idea how he’s going to react.
“This will be the greatest challenge he has ever faced or ever will face. No doubt about it. For him to go out there and perform at a level that we’re used to is going to be tough.”
Two-time US Open champion Strange agreed with Azinger’s assessment of the daunting challenge facing Woods.
“When you go to to a championship you can only have one thing on your mind and that is playing the golf course,” Strange said. “Augusta is such a mental golf course, such a second short golf course, such an exhausting golf course. If I had something going on in the background, I’d be toast.”
Fighting a pull, Harrington looked like toast in Texas as he visited water three times in the first six holes to fall hopelessly out of contention.
Just four stokes behind overnight leaders Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan starting the day, Harrington made three early visits to the water and the result was that he double bogeyed the third, bogeyed the fourth after and double bogeyed the sixth to slip back to one under for the tournament.
Short of the green, he failed to chip and putt for par at the short seventh to slither to six over par for the day. And while he fought back in his usual dogged fashion to birdie the par-five eighth, the driveable par-four 12th and the par-five 13th, he found trouble left and dropped shots at the 14th and 15th before parring his way home to finish in the bottom half of the field.
Joint overnight leader Anthony Kim was three under for his round through 15 holes but just one stroke clear of Augusta native Vaughan Taylor on 13 under par.