Sultan Of Swing
With his third Masters title in six years and seventh major championship of his career, Tiger Woods proves he's alone in his field
They can lengthen the golf course or shorten it, grow the rough to four inches, fill the bunkers with small reptiles and install a windmill on the 16th green. They can plant trees where trees never stood, halt 300-yard drives in mud and slay the best putters in cold blood, which isn't to say the membership of Augusta National GC isn't without compassion.
Upon further review, they might consider a clown's mouth. Preferably Charles Barkley's.
Amidst all the fact, fiction and flabbergast surrounding the 66th Masters, a king-size case of reality emerged last Sunday. There is only one Tiger Woods, a man with his own era, and at this juncture on the road to Nicklausville, the truth is starting to hurt. On an afternoon when five of the world's top seven players stood poised to alter the game's competitive universe, to threaten Woods' dominance of Augusta National and impose some doubt as to the identity of the world's best golfer, poise became a forgotten commodity.
Tiger shifted into his prevent defense with nine holes to play, shot his highest round of the week (71) and, at 12 under, still won by three. Not until Hootie Johnson slid the green jacket over his shoulders was he actually touched. "All those guys were right behind me," Woods insisted after another victory dinner with the Masters chairman. "Anytime you beat a field like that, it's so satisfying."
He was being gracious where others were hopeless, playing the humble champion on a day when so much breathless anticipation left a pile of contenders in dire need of oxygen. From Retief Goosen's duck-hook off the first tee to Vijay Singh's double-chunk quadruple bogey from the middle of the 15th fairway, this tournament produced nothing in the way of final-round suspense. For all his greatness, Woods has become a drama vacuum, a presence armed with two tons of intimidation every time he's in the hunt, a supreme talent whose insatiable desire to win clearly saps the will of others.
"This tournament wears on you," said Stewart Cink, who finished tied for 24th. "One of the biggest hazards out there is what's happening between your ears, and he's in everyone else's head."
Added Colin Montgomerie, never one to miss a bandwagon headed in the wrong direction: "They said they Tigerproofed the thing. If they want to do that, they should make it shorter. [The tees] were on the tips today, and the fairways hadn't been mowed. They seemed to be saying, 'He is the best, so why not let him win?' They have played right into his hands."
As disheartening as the reaction was to Woods winning by 12 strokes in 1997, this might have been worse. Els, whose demise was punctuated by a careless triple bogey at the par-5 13th, sounded particularly distraught. "I don't know what it is about professional golfers, but sometimes we think we're better than we are," he admitted. "It's been in my game for a while—a lot of frustration. It's been that way for two years or so. I feel like I'm getting in my own way."
In joining Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer on the list of those with seven Grand Slam titles, Woods only reaffirmed the notion that he has Jack Nicklaus' number (18) on speed dial. He has won six of the last 10 majors, a pace that would end his chase of Nicklaus in the summer of 2007. Just as frightening is his 92 percent success rate (23 of 25) when leading a tournament after 54 holes. Woods is now 7-0 when he carries a lead into a major on Sunday. Not even Fat Jack slammed the door with such conviction.
For Palmer, the 66th Masters was his 48th and final one as a competitor, bringing to an end the most influential career in golf history. It was here in 1958 that Arnie's Army was formed by U.S. soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon who once manned Augusta National's scoreboards. Nearly half a century later, he remains the most popular man on the grounds.