January 5, 2010

The Chip Is Off His Shoulder

Tiger's 0-for-10 slump in the majors ends with a special day at Augusta

There's no telling how many more majors Tiger Woods can win as long as you put him on golf courses with soft greens, no wind, trees to bounce off of, the luck of 10 overpaid CEOs and nobody to beat but a guy with a putting grip that looks like he's trying to change a tire or open a contrary bottle of wine.

OK, it was a grand accomplishment, this fourth Masters and 12th major for Tiger--as opposed to only nine majors that all the stubborn dolts choose to give him, taking six major amateur titles away from Bobby Jones at the same time.

But this victory, ending Tiger's majorless slump at 10, was helped by an incredible assortment of circumstances along with his ability to take advantage of them. It's certainly not easy to grab a major in any shape or form, and you'd think even more difficult when you're forced to play, thanks to the golf weather of 2005, 12 holes on Thursday, seven holes on Friday, 26 holes on Saturday and 28 holes on Sunday, counting sudden death.

Yeah, just your normal tournament. Twelve holes, seven, 26, 28.

Which tempts a man to say that the Masters always ends on the back nine early Sunday morning--that's where Tiger caught and passed the brave and gritty Chris DiMarco. But then this one started again on the back nine late Sunday afternoon, as it always does.

There's the theory that Tiger was helped when play was suspended and interrupted and toyed with the first two days. It enabled him to regroup, get his swing and attitude back together. This might well be true, because he came out of the box playing like a golf writer. A scooping, slashing, spraying, club-tossing typist, although he somehow salvaged a 74.

You might say he was also looking like those other guys in golfdom's so-called Big Five--Mickelson, Singh, Els and Goosen--who couldn't wait to go south in this Masters. Els went all the way to the Galapagos, finishing 47th, but Goosen (tied for third), Singh (tied for fifth) and Mickelson (10th) at least stayed on the continent, Goosen primarily due to a final-round 67.

The point is, they were never a factor Sunday afternoon, and neither was anybody else in the field while Tiger and DiMarco were putting seven strokes between themselves and third place. And this not only made it a trifle easier for Tiger, but it made the statement of some "experts" from earlier in the week look even sillier--that these five players are giving the sport its most glamorous period in history.

Oh, really? More glamorous than the era of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Trevino, Miller and Watson? Than the days of Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Demaret, Mangrum and Middlecoff? Than the years of Jones, Hagen, Sarazen and Armour?

Excuse a geezer while he giggles and slaps his knee.

THE SPIKE CONTROVERSY

Actually, the only time Mickelson and Singh livened up the place was during Spikegate. This was that welcome interlude during weather delays when the press trembled with excitement over the possibility of a feud, a scandal, an incident.

To recap: Phil wears metal spikes for better traction, and he'd switched to 8-millimeter jobs, a whole 2 millimeters more than most players use. On Friday when Vijay played directly behind Phil, he complained that Phil's extra-longs were leaving trenches and ditches in the greens, and said to the world in general and officials in particular that Phil should be horsewhipped or sent to bed without dinner, or something to that effect. Phil didn't like what he heard and, figuring that Vijay had a mouth that was getting a few millimeters too big, supposedly approached him for a chat about it in the Champions Locker Room.

Rumors about their exchange rumbled, sped, sailed and soared across the veranda and into the press center. This was more than a bored press could hope for. The writers braced themselves and their laptops for lob wedges at 20 paces.

Nothing happened, as you know, but I could have told everyone that. I was just outside the locker room and overheard their brief conversation. It went like this:

PHIL: Vijay, if you have a moment, I'd like to discuss pathos and humor in the European novel from, say, Dostoyevsky to Mann.

VIJAY: I gather you want to compare the beauty and motivations of Grushenka with those of Clavdia Chauchat?

PHIL: Yes, by all means. But first . . . you're standing on my foot.

Speaking of a moment that lacked warmth, how about Phil as the defending champion giving Tiger the green jacket after it was all over? They had gone 0-2 together in the Ryder Cup last fall, lowlighted by Phil putting Tiger up against a fence with his drive in the alternate shot. So as Phil eased Tiger into his jacket I could swear I heard Tiger say, "Nice going, Phil, you hit my shoulders."

You could make the argument that Tiger might have won this Masters on two holes during those uncomfortable, inconvenient and irritating hours of Thursday and Friday.

He got away with larceny after two horrible shots on his way to that opening 74, which took two days. At the 575-yard second hole he pull-stump-stabbed a drive that flew only wheelchair high into the trees. It might never have been found, or perhaps would have been unplayable. But no. The ball hits a tree and stays safe.

Dean DiMarco

Photo: DARREN CARROLL

A long way off, but he can play it. So Tiger jacks around and disconsolately hits it up there somewhere, then advances it down there somewhere, and finally hits it somewhere up on the green, but he winds up sinking a 20-foot putt for a par. No, he doesn't come away with a double or a triple, like most human beings, he escapes with a par!

Then there was the situation at the 180-yard sixth the next morning. Tiger saw his tee shot spin back off the green, leaving him on the front fringe. His first putt had to travel up the slope and past a ridge to reach the cup, but he struck it woefully weak and the ball came right back down to his feet, like yours or mine would. Pathetic.

Naturally he putted the next one hard enough to make it up the slope, but it slid way past the cup. It left him a slightly downhill putt of more than 20 feet for a bogey. A bogey, folks. So it's double or even triple time again, right? Wrong. Tiger sinks the putt and escapes with a 4. That's two stroke-saving miracles, and I'm not even going to discuss the bogey he salvaged after another lucky bounce out of the trees on the par-5 eighth, or the bogey he salvaged after he brain-deaded a putt off the green and into the creek at the 13th, that scenic but most incorrigible of par 5s.

To be fair, it has to be said that Tiger's good fortune was interspersed with some beautiful golf, an indication that his new swing under a new guru is taking shape. That Tiger made changes at all while holding 11 majors was no small thing, especially when you consider that Hogan had to get hit by a bus to remake his swing.

Tiger strapped a 66-65 on the joint in the middle rounds, and nothing was more spectacular than the stiff, stiff, stiff and stiff thing he did on the back nine Sunday morning--four of his seven straight birdies that tied a Masters record--to overtake DiMarco. Tiger picked up six strokes in four holes and 31 minutes. But that was no record, if you want the truth.

If there was a history junkie on the premises, other than me, the person would be reminded of that thing Byron Nelson once did to Ralph Guldahl back in 1937. The last round of that Masters was where Byron went 2-3 (birdie, eagle) while Guldahl went 5-6 (double bogey, bogey) at the 12th and 13th down at Amen Corner, which, incidentally, had yet to be named by Herbert Warren Wind. In other words, Byron made up six strokes in only two holes.

Take what happened to DiMarco and Woods at the 495-yard 10th hole. On Sunday morning DiMarco doesn't hit all that ugly an iron shot for his approach--it did squirt on him--but it winds up unplayable in a bush. Double bogey.

Then in the afternoon at the same hole Woods rifles a hideous killer-hook, high and bound-to-be-lost in the trees, but the ball finds yet another tree limb to hit and bounces out in the open, where he can get out of there with no worse than a bogey 5.

But more jaws were left gaping by Tiger's chip shot on No. 16 in the final round than anything else. If it was The Shot That Won the Masters, then his long tee shot at 16, which put him there in the first place, and his wild drive at 17 and his wayward approach to 18 were The Shots That Tried to Lose the Masters. A man on The Golf Channel even called that circus chip-in from 30 feet at the 16th "perhaps the greatest shot in the history of the Masters."

Well, for starters there was that little double eagle by Gene Sarazen in the second Masters, but I guess anything that happened more than 10 years ago doesn't count.

Tiger's chip-in with his wedge from the fringe, throwing it into the hill and letting it dribble down to the cup, was the only way he could play the shot. He was just trying to make a 3. "One of my more creative shots," he said.

Right. It wasn't a golf shot, it was a trick shot. And when the ball lingered and then toppled in, it became a leaping, whirligig, backward, yo-momma dunk.

A great golf shot was DiMarco's 4-iron from a downhill lie in the rough to within three feet of the flag on No. 9 on Sunday. A great golf shot was DiMarco sticking it within a foot of the flag on No. 14 from 206 yards on Sunday.

Those shots kept the drama alive and helped make a hero of DiMarco, who was in a position to win it when his chip at the 72nd hit the hole but lipped out.

But in the end, in the heat, Tiger had two great shots left himself. One was the 3-wood off the 18th tee in sudden death that lasered the fairway, and the other was his 8-iron that he "flushed"--his word--to within 15 feet of the pin.

Nobody doubted whether that putt would go in. Especially Tiger.

So, how many more majors will Tiger win this year, you might ask? He's as good a pick as any for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and he dominated St. Andrews the last time the British Open stopped by the Old Course. But wins there or in the PGA at Baltusrol also depend on Fate. And like the song lyrics say: Tears don't care where they fall, and dreams don't make noise when they die.