June 25, 2007

Tiger and the Marx Brothers Masters

It's terrifying to think what pro golf would be like today without Tiger. Right, just Tiger, no Woods, as in Elvis, Ike, Ali, Dillinger, or some other guy whose fame sawed off part of his name, left it in the dust.

Can't anyone else play this game?

That's the question Tiger left to be answered after this year's Masters. He started winning this third one—his 10th major—with a third-round 66, which was what sent the following message into the minds of all his so-called challengers, his fellow-competitors:

"Tiger is in the building."

What pro golf would look like without Tiger, in fact, might be what it looked like on Sunday, April 14, at Augusta: A Demolition Derby interrupting the Westminster dog show. Which is what the mud smelled like after all the rain.

Tied for the 54-hole lead with Retief Goosen, the current U.S. Open champion, Tiger went out in the last round to do battle with a gang of the game's most celebrated players, and the world eagerly waited for the drama that usually unfolds when the event trips over the cliché that I, myself, once created:

The Masters always starts on the back nine Sunday.

Well, it was a little different this time. Tiger didn't have to do battle with any other players. While he battled the golf course, getting up and down and around in 71 for his winning total of 276, the Three Stooges were out there battling the Marx Brothers to see who could provide the funniest Masters moment of 2002.

It's hard to pin down the most amusing thing, but it has something to do with Tiger's name suddenly going up on the leader board. Like Jack Nicklaus before him, and Ben Hogan before Jack, Tiger's name up there in a major seems to make all of the others slump over and utter, "Uh-oh, here he comes again. I'm dead."

__2002 Masters__   __April 11-14, Augusta (Ga.) National G.C. 7,270 yards, par 72 Low 16 and ties qualify for 2003 Masters __  Tiger Woods 70-69-66-71--276 $1,008,000  Retief Goosen 69-67-69-74--279 $604,800  Phil Mickelson 69-72-68-71--280 $380,800  J.M. Olazabal 70-69-71-71--281 $268,800  Ernie Els 70-67-72-73--282 $212,800  P. Harrington 69-70-72-71--282 $212,800  Vijay Singh 70-65-72-76--283 $187,600  Sergio Garcia 68-71-70-75--284 $173,600  M.A. Jimenez 70-71-74-70--285 $151,200  Adam Scott 71-72-72-70--285 $151,200  Angel Cabrera 68-71-73-73--285 $151,200  Chris DiMarco 70-71-72-73--286 $123,200  Brad Faxon 71-75-69-71--286 $123,200  Nick Faldo 75-67-73-72--287 $98,000  Davis Love III 67-75-74-71--287 $98,000  S. Maruyama 75-72-73-67--287 $98,000  C. Montgomerie 75-71-70-71--287 $98,000 

The most amusing thing could have been the look of frozen fear on Retief Goosen's face most of the way around. He normally looks pleasant. The leading man's best friend. The co-pilot in the B-17. Retief, by the way, is a reasonably common first name in South Africa—as it is in Arkansas, of course, but everyone there is trying to spell Ralph.

Anyhow, on Masters Sunday, Retief's face and body language told you that he only wanted to get out of Tiger's way. "I pulled everything long left," he said later. "I was always putting from 40 feet. ... I deflated myself".

Goosen deflated it around in two-over 74 and still finished second. That's how funny it was.

The majorless Phil Mickelson birdied the first two holes, and there were those who shouted, "Here comes Phil!" He quickly Mickelsoned the next two holes, as in bogeyed, and there were those who moaned, "There goes Phil. Again."

Phil announced that even though he finished third and was still majorless, he had "a very fun and enjoyable week." He even said that during the week he went to a "wonderful" movie—"The Rookie" is what it was—and it made him feel "very fortunate" to have just been on the leader board Sunday, simply part of it all.

Some might even say that Phil's taste in films needs work.

Actually, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, a couple of heroes with majors to their credit, were expected to strap more heat on Tiger than anybody else. Els with two U.S. Opens in his pocket, Vijay a Masters and a PGA. Vijay was only two back starting the final round, Ernie only four. Surely one of them would make a run at Tiger, maybe get a bridge named after himself.

So what happens? They slug it out for the biggest laugh on the back nine.

First it was Els. Still only three back of Tiger through 12 holes, he turned the easy 13th into meatloaf.

Pull-hooked his drive left of the creek. No chance to reach the par 5 in two. The smart play was to pitch out into the fairway the easiest, shortest, clearest way possible. But no. Ernie tried to run a shot through a tiny spot into which you might possibly be able to insert Calista Flockhart. Naturally the ball struck foliage and darted into the creek.

Els took a penalty and went about slapping his next shot into the creek fronting the green, took another penalty, pitched onto the green and two-putted for his 8.

Vijay was still four shots behind Tiger when he went to the 15th, a hole that invites birdies and eagles. It didn't make you a psycho to think that Tiger could still be caught. Two birdies here, two bogeys there. That kind of thing. So Vijay hits a poor tee shot that forces him to lay up instead of going for an eagle or doing a Gene Sarazen thing. Now he has a wedge. That's OK. Hogan always laid up and still got his birdie.

But ... first wedge shot is short, goes in the water. Three in the water, out in four, playing five. Then ... second wedge shot spins back into the water. Five in the water, out in six, playing seven.

His third and final wedge makes the green, whereupon he two-putts for his 9 on the par 5 and a headline: Vijay wins Quad City in Augusta, Ga.

Vijay blamed mud on the ball for almost every unfortunate occurrence after his second-round 65, which had given him the lead. But last time we looked, there was no mud on the ball for his bad drives. And why was it that Tiger never seemed to get mud on his ball? The Mudball Five—Singh, Goosen, Mickelson, Els and Sergio Garcia—were a combined nine over par Sunday. So much for final-round charges.

The rain delay did require Arnold Palmer to take three days to play his last two rounds at the Masters after 48 years. Which raises the question: What's your favorite Arnold farewell—Oakmont in '94, St. Andrews in '95, or this Masters? He must have grown weary raising one arm and then the other at Augusta to acknowledge the applause at every hole, but he smiled all the way while firing the 89-85 that would have been a shot behind Horace Rawlins for the U.S. Open of 1895 at Newport.

The other thing the rain did was ruin a chance to see what real effect the new changes to the course would have. The biggest change was at the 18th, which had become a pushover thanks to technology and bigger, stronger athletes. The tee was moved back 60 yards and five yards to the right, forcing more of a dogleg and making the narrow opening look like you were being asked to kick a 280-yard field goal.

Only when the course plays fast, firm and dry will we be able to judge all the changes. Tiger will probably win by 20 then.

This time he shot an ordinary final round and still won by three. Along the way he hit two shots that closed the doors, a chip-in for a birdie at the sixth, and a magnificent wedge to within one foot of the cup for a birdie at the 15th, this coming on the heels of Vijay's game of 9-ball.

What that did was give Tiger his fourth straight year of winning a major, which ties Nicklaus in that respect, but it leaves Tiger with more goals. Walter Hagen went six straight years winning majors, '24 through '29, and Bobby Jones went eight straight years, '23 through '30.

Tiger's 10 majors at the age of 26 leave him only 10 short of Nicklaus' 20, which Jack didn't reach until he was 46. Tiger now has as many as Hogan—yeah, I count five Opens—and more than Player, Palmer, Watson, Snead, Sarazen and so on.

A year after completing the Tiger Slam at Augusta with his fourth consecutive major title, the talk now turns to the Calendar Slam—and against this competition, it might be the lock of the year. Asked what he did best all week to continue his assault on the record books, Tiger said, "Stayed focused. It doesn't get any more complicated than that."

It must be a habit. Augusta was the 23rd time out of 25 tournaments on the PGA Tour that Tiger has won while leading or sharing the lead after 54 holes, and he has yet to lose a major with at least a share of the lead after three rounds. Jack, on the other hand, finished second in majors 19 times.

The kid just keeps coming up short on silver medals.