AUGUSTA, Ga., April 14 - After shooting a third-round 70 on Saturday to climb up the leaderboard at the 66th Masters, Sergio Garcia was asked if the gap between Tiger Woods and the rest of professional golf had been narrowed. “Yes, no doubt about it,” Garcia said. Perhaps he didn’t understand the question.
For all the changes at the Masters this year, the champion remains the same. For all practical matter, the tournament ended on Saturday, when Woods birdied the hardest hole on the course — No. 18 — to grab a tie for the lead. He came to the first tee on Sunday in a tie with South African Retief Goosen — the most lopsided tie in recent memory.
Goosen is the reigning U.S. Open champion and the heretofore “hottest player in the game,” with six wins in his last 24 starts around the world. He even edged Woods by a stroke while playing alongside of him on Thursday and Friday at last year’s PGA Championship. But that’s like saying your horse had Secretariat beat at the first turn.
The two men teed off at 1:15 p.m. ET on Sunday. Goosen bogeyed the first hole to fall one stroke back, Woods birdied the second to go two strokes up and the highly-anticipated dual was over at 1:38 p.m. From that point, Goosen and his creek-splashing mates were little more than comic Retief.
“I think the turning point for Tiger, what got him going again was the sixth hole, when he chipped in from the back,” Goosen said. “From there on, no one really was putting any pressure on him. I think he was just cruising in. He was just hitting to the safe side on every hole. He didn’t have to do anything but par in.”
Goosen wasn’t alone knowing the contest was over.
“When Tiger is in the lead, he’s the only leader that you don’t have the hope that he’ll falter,” Phil Mickelson said.
Woods became the first champion to repeat since Nick Faldo in 1989-90 and joined Faldo and Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) as the only back-to-back champions. He didn’t just win his third Masters in six outings, he won it while laying in a hammock, with a mint julep in his hand and a cool breeze in his face. He controlled his distances, rolled his putts and made it look like child’s play. He chipped in from off the green at No. 13 like it was a foregone conclusion. He threw his 10th consecutive subpar round on this stretched out golf course and stopped by Butler’s Cabin to pick up his jacket.
The gap hasn’t narrowed, it’s been highlighted, and it takes more then a victory at a Mercedes Championship or a BellSouth Classic to build a bridge. Thirty-one times Woods has started a final round with the lead or a share of it, 27 times he closed shop. Woods doesn’t win at Augusta because he is longer than anyone else — although he was sixth in the tournament in driving distance — he wins at Augusta because he is more committed than anyone else, more composed and more resilient than anyone else. It’s certainly no surprise he led the Masters in greens in regulation (54 of 72 holes).
He wins at Augusta because Ben Hogan is gone, Arnold Palmer is done and Jack Nicklaus has lost a little off the fastball at age 62. Woods has won six of the past 10 major championships. His seven major championships in his 26th spring are two more than Nicklaus had at the same juncture. The way things are going, it seems inevitable he will match or exceed Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major titles.
“It would be nice to win as many majors as Jack did,” Woods said. “That would be great, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”
OK, but who’s going to stop him?
Goosen? He shot 74 on Sunday.
Vijay Singh? Try a quadruple bogey at No. 15 — the easiest hole on the course.
Ernie Els? He couldn’t have beat Bob Barker on Sunday.
Phil Mickelson? He’s 0 for 39 in majors.
If that’s the competition, Woods doesn’t have to break a sweat. Where’s Bob May when you need him? Augusta National was there for the taking on Sunday, it’s defenses softened, it’s volatile winds subdued. The 70-year Southern Lady beckoned for some dashing gentleman to sweep her off her feet and steal away her title. But she had no callers, only one card was in the 60s.
Woods can win this tournament with his “A” game, or he can win it with a game, any kind of game. This time, a relatively modest 1-under-par 71 was good enough to do the trick. Predictability is not part of the rich tradition at the Masters. The second Sunday in April is supposed to be dramatic, not sleep inducing.
If the gap continues to close at the present pace, it promises to only get worse.
Dan O’Neill is a contributor to NBCSports.com and covers golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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