AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They heard the roars and saw the fist pumps. They watched the scoreboards at Augusta National and waited for a blip or a bogey or something to give them the tiniest shred of hope that someone other than Tiger Woods will win the 61st Masters.
It happened just once, but that was before Woods continued his obliteration of the course's fabled back nine.
It did not happen again yesterday, and might not for the remainder of the tournament.
By the time the 21-year-old marvel had left the course last night, after a 6-under par 66 had given him a two-round total of 8-under 136 and a three-shot lead, what nearly amounted to a collective concession speech was being given throughout the grounds.
It was given inside the press room by Colin Montgomerie. His 5-under par 67 had put Montgomerie into contention for the first time at the Masters, but the 33-year-old Scot didn't sound confident that he or anybody aside from Woods was in control of his fate this weekend.
Asked whether he had a chance to win his first major championship, Montgomerie said, "Sure I can. It depends. It depends on how Mr. Woods fares, really. The way he plays this course tends to suit him more than anyone else playing right now. If he decides to do what he's doing, more credit to him. We'll all shake his hand and say well done."
As he left the scorer's tent after playing with Woods yesterday, Paul Azinger was even more succinct. Six shots back after a 1-over 73, the former PGA champion said, "I think he'll be hard to beat. Nobody runs away here. I don't think he will. But I wouldn't put it past him to do it."
Two players who won't beat Woods or anyone else this weekend are defending champion Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. Both missed the cut yesterday, three-time champion Faldo after a disastrous 9-over 81 had left him at 156 and Norman after a 74 had pushed him out by two shots. The cut was at 5-over 149.
Aside from Montgomerie, those closest to Woods include Constantino Rocca of Italy, who is four shots behind after a 3-under par 69; former champions Fred Couples (69) and Jose Maria Olazabal (70) as well as former PGA champion Jeff Sluman (67), all of whom are at 3-under 141.
Three others -- Azinger, Paul Stankowski (74) and former British Open and PGA champion Nick Price (71) -- are six shots behind. Two-time champion Tom Watson (68), former U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa (70) and Davis Love III (71) are seven back.
Not everyone is conceding the green jacket to Woods.
"It's only Friday and a lot of things can happen," said Stankowski, 27. "I saw the fist-pumping and the hand-shaking stuff [by Woods] and I told my caddie that I was going to laugh. That's fine. I'm sure he's not going to be as comfortable coming out here tomorrow with the lead. We saw what happened last year [to Norman]. There's a lot of guys breathing down his neck."
Whether he's being honest or merely smart, Woods agrees. That the weather forecast today is for rain should soften the greens even more than the humidity did yesterday, and give others a chance to put up low numbers. That he has played only once as the leader past the midway point of a tournament since turning pro -- and lost at Quad Cities last year -- could also be a factor.
"I'm in the lead, which is nice," said Woods, who has won three times as a pro and once this year after winning the last of three straight U.S. Amateurs. "But as I've said, it's only the halfway point. There are so many guys who can win this tournament."
Considering the way Woods has played, it seems unlikely that anyone else will. Since making the turn in the opening round of his first major championship as a pro in 4-over 40, Woods has played the last 27 holes in 12-under. He has played the back nine the first two days in 10-under, including two birdies and two eagles on the par-5s. Not bad for someone who had never broken par here in six rounds as an amateur.
Though Woods didn't match the jaw-dropping 30, he put up on the back nine Thursday, he came close. After making the turn at 2-under for the day, Woods hit an 8-iron to within 20 feet on the 485-yard par-5 13th hole and made the putt for eagle 2. He hit a sand wedge to within a foot on the 405-yard 14th and made birdie. He barely missed another eagle at 15 to go 8-under.
Montgomerie noticed, saw and then later watched in the press room what was going on.
"I got to 5-under after 11 and found myself two ahead, but there was always Woods, who hadn't done anything wrong, lurking and coming up," said Montgomerie, who has come close in three previous majors, losing in playoffs at the 1994 U.S. Open and 1995 PGA Championship, and finishing third at the 1992 Open. "So I knew I had to keep it going and unfortunately I three-putted 12 [for bogey]."
The player seemingly most affected by Woods' charge was first-round leader John Huston.
Having started the day at 5-under and surrendering just one shot to par through the first 12 holes, Huston found trouble after his drive on 13. He put his next three balls into Rae's Creek, took a 10 on the hole and finished with a 77. Huston is at even-par 144.
"It was pretty embarrassing," said Huston. "I couldn't believe it was happening because it's happened before. You get used to seeing some strange things happen."
Though nobody else did, Woods saw some things happen to him yesterday that he didn't like. So, after finishing his round last night, Woods went straight to the range to hit a couple of bags of balls.
"I can always get better," he said. "No matter what you shoot, you still go out and work on a few things."
Woods might consider working on something else.
A victory speech.
The leader Tiger Woods 70-66-136 and selected followers
C. Montgomerie 72-67-139 C. Rocca 71-69-140 Jeff Sluman 74-67-141 Fred Couples 72-69-141 J. Maria Olazabal 71-70-141 Nick Price 71-71-142 Paul Azinger 69-73-142 Paul Stankowski 68-74-142 Tom Watson 75-68-143 John Huston 67-77-144 Jack Nicklaus 77-70147 Fred Funk 73-74-147 Larry Mize 79-69-148 Greg Norman 77-74-151 Nick Faldo 75-81-156 Complete scores.
Pub Date: 4/12/97