April 14 - Next year, they should just hand Tiger Woods the green jacket when he drives down Magnolia Lane for his first practice round. Or, the best golfers in the world should simply do what David Duval did — miss the cut and save themselves the embarrassment of having millions of people in 190 countries watch them fall apart like a cheap suit in a hurricane.
IF SUNDAY AT AUGUSTA National is as good as golf gets, the sport is in more trouble than Arthur Anderson. The record books will show that Woods won his third Masters, his sixth major in his last 10 tries, and his seventh major overall. But, while the unquestioned best player in the world played a competent final round on a course that was lengthened and strengthened to withstand the assaults of plutonium-powered golf balls and clubs, it’s impossible to say he beat anyone.
That’s not Tiger’s fault, because there wasn’t anyone to beat, the rest of the field did an exceptionally thorough job of beating itself. Woods started the round tied for the lead, shot a one-under 71, and still won by three strokes.
The guys who collapsed weren’t people you’ve never heard of, either. The first seven names on the final round leaderboard included six of the top seven golfers in the world, and lacked only Duval, who caught an early flight home. Woods started the round tied with Retief Goosen of South Africa and two strokes ahead of the 2000 Masters champion, Vijay Singh. Lurking in the manicured rough four strokes astern were Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Sergio Garcia.
This was a round you wanted to see from start to finish, a round you fully expected to be among the best you had ever seen. And why not? Since winning the Masters last year, Woods had not won another major and had been in what, for him, could be considered a slump. The rest of the world seemed to be catching up to him, his aura of invincibility seemed to be developing holes.
On Saturday, Singh had collapsed down the stretch and afterwards blamed his misfortunes on mud on his ball. Since everyone endured the same conditions, it smacked of whining from one who should be above blaming what golfers call the rub of the green for his lack of execution. Sunday, the only mud he had to blame was between his ears. A 69 would have tied Woods and a 68 beaten him. Singh shot 76.
Garcia shot 75, Els 73, and Goosen 74, while only Mickelson, who alternated birdies and bogeys all day, broke par, with a 71. Seldom have so many golfers with such a slew of titles and such hordes of money displayed as much disgrace under pressure.
If Woods had gone out and shot a 68, you could excuse them all. But, after nailing birdies on his second two holes, Woods was anything but scintillating. Time and again he had to get up and down for pars. Several times he hit errant tee shots that required all his enormous skills to prevent from turning into disasters. But when you have to scramble for pars, you can’t make birdies. He was there for anyone who dared to catch him.
No one dared. Oh, they tried, but the simple fact was Woods on top of the leaderboard was enough to make them all squeeze the clubs until rubber oozed out between their white knuckles. Anyone else, they could have beaten, but not Woods. Just his name gave him more than enough strokes to win.
What could have been a great round - should have been a great round - turned out to be as exciting as watching milk curdle. Give Tiger all the credit he deserves. At the age of 26, he’s just two majors away from Ben Hogan and more than a third of the way to the 18 titles Jack Nicklaus earned in the majors - the last one at the age of 46 at Augusta.
Can Tiger win 12 more to beat Jack in the next 20 years? It’s not even a question anymore, because Sunday at Augusta, no one even had the courage to try to beat him. They weren’t the Masters of golf, but the masters of choke.
(c) Copyright 2001 Mike Celizic. Syndicated by ParadigmTSA. You can contact Celizic at firstname.lastname@example.org
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