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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For Max Homa, 36 holes with Tiger Woods are a Masters class in grinding

Co-leader Max Homa reacts on the 18th green Friday during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.  (Tribune News Service)
By Barry Svrluga Washington Post

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Even through the bluster that blew hats off heads and sand out of bunkers by the beachful, there is a warmth to the applause provided by the gallery that surrounds the 18th green at Augusta National Golf Club. It is forever perfect in tenor and tone, meeting whatever moment that plays out on the lushness before it – celebratory and in awe of a round well played, appreciative and empathetic for a Masters career coming to an end, quietly acknowledging the struggles for a player who misses the cut.

So when Tiger Woods stood over a 5-footer for par at the final hole Friday afternoon, there was a calm anticipation through all the craned necks and squinted glances. That included his own group.

“It really is a dream to get to play with him here,” said Max Homa, a 33-year-old playing just his fifth Masters. “I always wanted to just watch him hit iron shots around here, and I was right up next to him. It was really cool. His short game was so good. I don’t think I can explain how good some of the chip shots he hit today were. He’s special.”

Uh, Max, you’re the one who opened with a 67 and followed with a gutsy 71 to get to 6 under par, tied with Scottie Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau for the lead.

Yeah, but … tell a 14-year-old Max Homa he would play two rounds at the Masters with Woods – and best him by seven shots?

“All the clichés you hear about him and all the old stories about how he will grind it out,” Homa said, “it was fun to see that in person.”

This, after an even-par 72 left Woods at 1 over for the tournament. There was a time when making the cut at the Masters was scarcely an achievement for Woods, a mere precursor to a weekend when the real accomplishments awaited. That time, given the steel rod in his right leg and his fused right ankle, is past.

What’s an accomplishment now is playing 23 holes on an unrelenting Friday, completing the weather-delayed first round in the morning, resting for all of 45 or 50 minutes, then firing it up again.

“I’m tired,” Woods said.

He looked like he meant it. At 18, the wind gusted so powerfully that Woods had to step away from that final putt. His entire group bowed heads, shielded eyes and braced against it.

“We had sandblasts for 45 seconds,” Homa said. “And I turned around five times so I didn’t get crushed in the face, and he’s standing there like a statue – and then poured it right in the middle.”

With that, the crowd rose. Jason Day, the third player in the group, removed his hat and embraced Woods, who has made the cut 24 straight times here, every time he has played the event as a professional. The applause seemed so informed, as if most of those clapping knew precisely that Woods broke a tie with Gary Player and Fred Couples for the most made Masters cuts in a row.

That has the following significance:

“As soon as I’m done with you guys,” Woods told a group of reporters, “(I’ll) text Freddy and give him a little needle.”

Oh, and this:

“It means I have a chance going into the weekend,” Woods said. “I’m here. I have a chance to win the golf tournament.”

He has to say those things and think that way because that’s who he is, someone with five green jackets but thinking about the next. Never mind that he has finished only two 72-hole events in the past two calendar years, a rusty state chalked up to how hard it is to prepare his body and then perform. He is still at the Masters, even if hurts even to bend over and put his tee in the ground. His attitude?

“I’m right there,” he said.

This is all emblematic of where Woods, at 48 and with a broken body, is in his career, and the ages of those likely to compete for the green jacket in the 88th Masters.

Homa is an accomplished player who has risen as high as fifth in the world rankings, someone who is fighting to win his first major.

But his oldest golf-watching memory was as a 6-year-old, drinking in Woods’ win at the 1997 Masters.

“I actually very vividly remember the 18th hole,” Homa said. “For whatever reason, the red sweater sticks out. The drive way left. Everybody jumping in, trying to see. Tiger jumping. I think he was playing with Constantino Rocca. He’s waving at him where the green is.”

Check, check, check and check.

It’s so telling that in Homa’s first two days here, as he steered himself into contention through the gusts and the gales, were as defined by playing with Woods as they were the accomplishment of trying to win the dang thing. The gallery that acknowledged and adored Woods at 18 still follows him around in the largest throngs of the day and reacts so enthusiastically to the shots he can still pull off – a chip-in for birdie at the par-3 sixth that led to an eruption heard through the pines, a hard hook of an iron off pine straw on the par-4 ninth that helped get him out of jail and save par.

“At one point, I think we were leading, and I imagine I would have felt more pressure in a way had I not been playing with Tiger,” Homa said. “So I actually think that was a good thing. … He’s really easy to play with, and the crowd doesn’t know you’re there, which is pretty awesome.”

But it is Homa, not Woods, who is truly a threat to win this version of the Masters.

Homa’s journey to this point is hardly a straight line. A former NCAA champion at California, he has battled his mental state as much as his physical game, twice losing his PGA Tour card. In 2017, when he made just two of 17 cuts, he raked in $18,008.

The consensus on tour: It should never have come to that.

“He’s got all the talent in the world,” Woods said. “I got a chance to play with him at the Open Championship at St. Andrews (in 2022), and his ball flight, as solid as he hits it, it’s just a matter of time before he starts winning in bunches.”

If there are bunches – and Woods knows about bunches – to come for Homa, it has to start with one. If Woods finishes this Masters on Sunday with his body and game intact, there’s no doubt about the hug that will come from that gallery at the 18th. For Homa, those sounds are less familiar. He has two dream rounds with an icon of the game in the books at Augusta. What’s ahead might be ovations he earned on his own.