June 19, 2008

Sweeping Beauty

The fairy tale comes true--Tiger Woods wins the Masters to complete the most stunning stretch of major championship domination in the game's history

Woods was wide left on his first tee shot Sunday, but he offset the ensuing bogey a hole later.

Woods was wide left on his first tee shot Sunday, but he offset the ensuing bogey a hole later.

Call it what you want. A Grand Slam, an Impregnable Quadrilateral, The Monopoly to Which Others Contributed so Sloppily, or better yet, simply refer to it as the greatest stretch of dominance in golf history. Let the glory echo the accomplishment, not the corny labels attached to it, for if there's one thing we should remember about the 65th Masters, it's that action speaks louder than words.

Tiger Woods wins again. Details at 11.

This time, though, it really was different. There was the trickle of a teardrop on the 18th green and a river of fresh perspective afterward, as if Woods would remove his competitive armor only so another green jacket could smother his shoulders. Yes, the finality of it all hit him like an 18-wheeler. No, he never thought it possible to win four consecutive major championships. Yes, this was more impressive than those six straight USGA titles. And, no, in the Grand scheme of things, it isn't so much a Slam as it is a damn good fit.

"I got it a little big in '97," Woods said of the first sportcoat he received at Augusta National, "because a lot of guys told me they get larger as they get older."

As does the legend. Woods' sixth career major triumph will forever be linked to the 1930 achievement of the one and only Bobby Jones, but as is often the case, such historical comparisons suffer from blurred vision and loose lips. "Jack and Arnie bitching about him not getting a double dip? Kiss off," growled Rocco Mediate. "He's won four in a row. Just because they couldn't do it doesn't mean he can't. They have to leave this kid alone."

He is alone, has been for some time, occupying a stratosphere all his own. "What this is," said swing coach Butch Harmon, "is something no one who's walked this planet has ever done before."

From the apples and oranges blossomed a Georgia peach of a golf tournament, a contest deliciously similar to the 1975 Masters, when Nicklaus outlasted two of his toughest contemporaries, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller. Responding to his competitive Jones, Woods needed every last drop in the tank to pull away from David Duval and Phil Mickelson, both of whom saw their best chance to win a first major championship vanish in a pile of misplaced opportunity.

Tiger Woods wins again. Details at 11, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18. "The toughest thing about it is, I've played well enough to be the four-time defending champion," Duval lamented, his imagination drifting only slightly. "I've been in this position before a few times. I got beat by Mark [O'Meara in 1998] and a couple of other times I may very well have beaten myself, but today I didn't do that. It's not enjoyable, sitting here under these circumstances."

It stands to reason that Woods won his second Masters because Duval missed a five-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. No stroke had greater impact on the outcome, but to summarize last Sunday's final round so succinctly would be like saying the Civil War lasted three days.

"When I look back on this week, if I'm going to win with Tiger in the field, I can't continue to make the mistakes I've been making," said Mickelson, who finished third, three strokes back. "I've got to eliminate those somehow, from double bogeys on 12 and 14 earlier in the week to four bogeys today that weren't really tough pars. Mentally, I'm not there for all 72 shots. I'm slacking off on two or three, not thinking through each shot, and it's costing me some vital strokes."

Having capitalized on Saturday's birdie-birdie finish to earn the spot alongside Woods in Sunday's final pairing, Mickelson called the next 24 hours the most important of his career—then let the biggest tournament of his life slip away in the most unexpected fashion. On both front-nine par 3s, he failed to execute relatively simple up and downs, digging a hole from which he would never fully recover. The first bogey occurred when he stubbed a chip from the swale behind the fourth green, the second when he gassed a two-footer at the sixth. Typically, Mickelson atoned for the mistakes with birdies, first at No. 5, then at 7 and 8, but this wasn't a day when running in place would do him any good.

Over the final 30 holes, he missed a half-dozen putts inside six feet and sprinkled in the usual assortment of Mickelsonesque errors, but on the 16th tee Sunday evening, the left-hander was right where he needed to be: one behind Woods, who had just missed his own two-footer at 15. "I needed to step up and make a really good swing there, attack that pin and make birdie," Mickelson said. "I just pulled a 7-iron. A very disappointing shot."

Woods missed in almost the exact same spot, but after Mickelson's ball stayed high on the 16th green, leaving him a 40-footer with 15 feet of break, Tiger's fed down the slope, resulting in an uphill 25-footer, a legitimate birdie chance. "The pitch marks were seven inches apart," said swing coach Rick Smith. "Sixteen was a big hole. A real big hole."

It was Mickelson's only three-putt all day, the killer blow he could not afford. "I've got the momentum, I've got the honors," he said. "If I can stack one on 16, everything changes. To hit it the one place I can't hit it and not even give myself a putt at it—that was the swing that hurt the most."

Tiger Woods

Unlike a year ago, when the pain of losing a Masters seemed to last for months, Duval did not appear so decimated last Sunday night. Standing on the front porch of the Augusta National clubhouse, golf's Lone Stranger even managed a smile or two. "Good fun," he called it. "I knew I had a chance, though I didn't know where I stood. I was very comfortable out there. I knew my swing was where I wanted it to be."

His run at Woods was an altogether different one, made from two groups ahead and three strokes back, a charge made unforgettable by the way it started and unforgivable by how it ended. Duval birdied seven of the first 10 holes, pulling even with Woods at 12 under just as CBS went on the air. Until he reached the 17th green, however, Duval refused to look at a leader board. A three-putt par at the par-5 13th was his first real glitch, though a superb chip and tap-in birdie at 15 knotted him again with Woods at 15 under.

They would exchange shares of the lead seven times over the final nine holes, trading blows from a distance while Mickelson hung tragically close to the mix. "It was an incredible performance with everything he's gone through," said Puggy Blackmon, Duval's college coach and close friend. "That's the biggest thing about this. David's back, and he's going to be hard to beat. I don't think he'll ever concede to the fact that Tiger's out there by himself."

Trailing by one on the 16th tee, Duval's afternoon-long pursuit of Woods met an untimely death. He murdered a 7-iron from 183 yards, not just flying the green, but skipping off the back swale and into the first row of the gallery. Again, his recovery was successful—over the hump and gently down the hill to within seven feet of the flag. It wasn't close enough. "I hit a golf shot that might be the best I ever hit and made a 4 out of it," he sighed. "I really don't have an explanation for it. To be honest with you, I thought it might have been a [hole-in-one]."

Whether this harsh blast of fate explains why Duval missed the seven-footer on 16, a 12-footer for birdie on 17 and the five-footer on 18, no one will ever know. "The putt on 16 broke three or four inches," he acknowledged. "That was a misread." And the final two chances? "The only thing that made them difficult was the speed. They're not exactly the kind you can bang away at."

Woods was walking to his ball just off the 17th green as Duval read the five-footer on 18. Right edge, not too firm, the same putt Duval's made a million times before. "I didn't know how short it was until someone told me," Tiger said. "I knew he had stiffed it because of the roar, but when I didn't hear another one, I knew he had missed."

A clash of generations charact-erized this tournament from start to finish, most notably when a cell phone rang at the top of Byron Nelson's backswing Thursday morning. Talk of a Tiger Slam sent Woods off at close to even money, a bet made even safer when he opened with a 70, then positioned himself two strokes behind 36-hole leader Chris DiMarco with a 66.

It was a start identical to his first two rounds in 1997, but instead of trampling the field, Woods found plenty of familiar company. Twelve of the world's top 15 players began the third round under par and in the hunt. Mickelson (also at 136) and Duval (137) already had emerged as central characters. Multiple-major winners Ernie Els (139) and defending champion Vijay Singh (140) lurked close behind.

Woods arrived on the 13th tee Saturday afternoon three shots behind Angel Cabrera. Forty minutes later, he walked off the 15th green with a two-stroke lead. His third round was more a piece of fine machinery than a work of art, punctuated by three consecutive birdies after a bogey on 12. Otherwise, it was business as usual. "That's why he's so good," DiMarco marveled. "He doesn't look like he's doing anything, and he still shoots 68."

If last year's 15-stroke, U.S. Open victory was an example of how a difficult golf course is Woods' best friend, the 2001 Masters played to the opposite end of the spectrum. This year's cumulative scoring average of 72.49 was the second-lowest in tournament history, primarily because Augusta National's diabolical putting surfaces spent the week masquerading as pillows.

"I've seen firmer greens at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic," said Jesper Parnevik. "I don't want to see them ridiculous, but I've never seen them like this." More than one player hinted the easy conditions were a way to justify the proposed course changes, which are expected to include the lengthening of several par 4s and repositioning of various fairway bunkers (see page 36).

So if plenty of guys could have won this Masters, only one guy did. The two biggest strokes of Woods' week occurred at the start of Sunday's back nine—a maddeningly difficult, eight-foot par save on 10 and an 8-iron approach to 18 inches on 11. Said one knowledgeable observer with a bird's-eye view of the save on 10, "That putt was as nasty as nasty gets."

The birdie at 11 offset another bogey on 12, and from there, Woods knew exactly what he had to do. Other than the ridiculously short miss on 15, he gave nothing back to Duval, executing the type of prevent defense that wins a lot of major championships. "When I won in '97, I hadn't been a pro a full year yet," Woods said. "I was a little young, a little naïve, and I probably didn't understand what I had accomplished for at least a year or two after that event.

"This year, I understand. I've been around the block. I've witnessed a lot of things since then. I have a better appreciation for winning a major championship, and to win four of them in succession, it's just hard for me to believe, really, because there's so many things that go into it."

At this point in time, with a century of history in his pocket and everyone else in the distance, Tiger would be wise to focus on the things he's gotten out of it. "From what I understand, I have to give back my U.S. Open trophy pretty soon," Woods said.

One can only wonder: Will he do as he's told?