AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was a Masters of "What Ifs" for Tiger Woods.
What if that wedge shot at 15 on Friday hadn't hit the flagstick, zipped back into the pond and sparked the biggest Masters rules flap since Roberto De Vincenzo forfeited the green jacket by signing an incorrect scorecard in 1968?
What if Woods, who himself signed an incorrect scorecard after the second round, had decided to quietly withdraw from this 77th Masters instead of taking a controversial two-stroke penalty and carrying on in pursuit of his fifth title? What might that have done to help rehabilitate his battered public image?
What if a television viewer had never called in to report Tiger's incorrect drop to begin with? What if Woods had not unwittingly told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi that he had taken an illegal drop? What if the drop wasn't illegal? What if, as side-by-side photos in Sunday's Augusta Chronicle seemed to suggest, Woods was mistaken and that he actually did drop the ball close to where he had originally played, as the rule required?
What if he didn't actually deserve to be penalized? Woods would have begun the third round just three shots back instead of five and the fourth round just two back instead of four. What if the greens at Augusta National weren't slower than years past and Woods had a better feel for their pace? What if he had holed a handful more putts?
So how 'bout it, Tiger, what if ...?
"Well, we could do that 'what if' in every tournament we lose," Woods said after a disappointing final-round 70 that left him four shots out of a playoff on a damp, drizzly day at Augusta National.
He's right, of course. "What If" can be a silly game. But still, the "what ifs" were as ubiquitous in this tournament as the azaleas at Amen Corner. You can't not ask "what if". It was that kind of a week for Woods. And now that it's over? Well, the rules brouhaha will remain on our minds for days, maybe weeks, but then fade away. It will go down as a curious sidebar in Masters history, an odd Friday-into-Saturday happening, but not much more.
The story that will linger, at least until June and the next major, the U.S. Open at Merion, is what did we learn about Woods in this 2013 Masters? Early Sunday evening as a drizzle fell on Augusta National and the customary roars echoed through the pines, the prohibitive favorite didn't win, or, for that matter, even genuinely threaten to win.
Woods had a number in mind for himself Sunday. He usually does. It was 65. ("I thought 10 would win it outright," he said Sunday evening.) He was right: 10-under would have won it, and 9-under would have landed him in a playoff with Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera. When Woods's putter let him down early -- he said he left every putt short for "probably the first eight holes" -- it led to a front-nine 37, which at one point had him a distant seven strokes off Cabrera's lead. When Woods opened the second nine with three pars, then made a tricky, bending two-putt birdie at 13, it energized the fans sitting beneath a sea of green-and-white umbrellas.
"Four shots back now!" a voice cried after Woods's birdie putt fell.
Woods is now 0-for-15 in the majors since the 2008 U.S. Open and winless at the Masters since 2005. But the fans love him no less for it. Even with a couple of Australians chasing the first green jacket for their sports-mad nation and loveable Brandt Snedeker looking for redemption after his 2008 Masters meltdown, Woods still remained the clear fan favorite. As he strolled past the grandstand above the 14th tee, no fewer than 17 patrons cried out his name. When he reached the crest of the fairway at the par-5 15th, thousands gathered down near the green strained for a glimpse, including a fan near the top of the greenside grandstand. "Jesus," said the woman with a soft Southern twang, "please do not put that umbrella back up! Tiger Woods is coming through."
And come through he did. When he knocked his second shot at 15 to 20 feet right of the hole, setting up a makeable eagle try, the gallery buzzed. This was it. A Tiger Moment in the making. Woods was at 4-under at that point, four back of Cabrera. An eagle would get him to within two and turn the tournament on its head. It was the kind of putt he used to make, not always, but often. The must-make. The legacy-builder. Woods missed it. High and right. Never had a chance. He tapped in for his birdie, but you sensed -- and certainly Woods must have, too -- that it was too little, too late.
"I certainly missed my share of putts today, actually this week," Woods said later. "I also made a bunch too. So it's one of those things where this golf course was playing a little bit tricky. We had four different green speeds out there and I couldn't believe how slow they were the first two days. Yesterday, I couldn't believe how fast they were, and then today it was another different speed again."
Woods's woes on the greens came as a surprise. Coming into this week, he was leading the PGA Tour in putting, and he has been "rolling his rock," as he likes to say, about as well as he ever has. But as Johnny Miller said earlier in the week, the beguiling greens at Augusta National are a long way from Bay Hill or Doral, where Woods won last month.
With his round complete, Woods spoke to reporters under gloomy skies and a steady rain. Woods never hangs around long when chatting with the press, but in these dreary conditions it was hard to fault the guy for wanting to seek shelter. When the scrum disbanded, Woods and his two closest handlers, Mark Steinberg and Glenn Greenspan, escorted him into the clubhouse. Steinberg excused himself to track down another of his clients, Matt Kuchar, and Greenspan also slipped off, leaving Woods alone.
Woods ascended the spiral staircase to the second floor and ambled past a room full of members and guests who were so riveted by the closing moments of the CBS telecast that many seemed not to even notice him. Woods kept walking and disappeared into the champions' locker room. That woody sanctuary must conjure plenty of wonderful memories for the four-time winner. But on Sunday evening, it must also have served as a place for quiet reflection.