Woods conquers his fourth Masters
Augusta, Ga. | You know the saw. The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine Sunday morning in a delayed third round when network TV cameras aren’t rolling live. All right, at least you could have introduced that edited version this year. In fact, it appeared the 2005 Masters might have ended then as well, for Tiger Woods had gained emphatic control, capped a seven-hole birdie streak, went from four strokes down to Chris DiMarco to three up and looked invincible.
Then Woods started Round 4 birdie-birdie, led by four and prompted observers to assume his green jacket collection easily would expand to four. But a couple of interesting things happened on the way to a suspected rout: DiMarco reversed his third-round slide and didn’t go away, and Woods’ swing hiccuped late. DiMarco took more punches than Tex Cobb, but he kept fist-pumping as if he were wearing red, white and blue at the 1999 Ryder Cup. And because he did, we got a sudden-death playoff and yet another revision: The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine Sunday three times.
With bonus time came undulating drama. The last five dizzying holes were something off an EKG printout. It looked like Woods was in control midway through 15, in danger of falling behind on 16 and then suddenly an apparent cinch winner at 16 after perhaps the best shot of his career – a 30-foot sidehill chip that had about 25 feet of left-right break. His new Nike One Platinum ball paused on the lip for two seconds and tumbled for a two-shot lead.
“Great break,” Woods said. “Somehow an earthquake happened and it fell.”
Woods, however, looked vulnerable again when loose swings led to blocked shots right and bogeys at Nos. 17 and 18. “Absolutely poor swings,” he said. “Some kind of high push-slice,” he called the approach into a bunker at 18.
But he played No. 18 again in the playoff as if he swallowed a bottle of amnesia pills. Out came a “perfect” 3-wood on which he “felt so good standing over.” Out came a “flushed” 8-iron that covered the flag. “That golf shot was cool,” he gushed. And in rolled a 15-foot putt.
“To hit two of the best shots I hit all week was pretty sweet,” he said of the playoff.
The birdie brought Woods many fine items:
His fourth Masters, tying him with Arnold Palmer, two behind Jack Nicklaus. His first major title since the 2002 U.S. Open, snapping a 10-major drought. His ninth professional major bottle cap, tying him with Ben Hogan and Gary Player while in pursuit of Nicklaus (18) and Walter Hagen (11).
So he put a Full Nelson on a Half Nicklaus.
“I guess I am halfway,” Woods said. “A long way to go.”
He also regained the No. 1 world ranking, bagged his 43rd Tour title and third of the year, won for the first time after going over par in the first round (74), improved his major record to 9-of-9 when leading after 54 holes, improved his playoff record to 7-1 and became the 15th consecutive Masters champion to come out of the final pairing.
At 29, he became the youngest four-time champion here. Nicklaus did so at 32, Palmer at 34. What’s more, Nicklaus was two years older than Woods at Major Milestone No. 9.
“It is special,” said Woods, who had come here ranked something other than No. 1 for the first time since 1999. “I’ve kind of battled the last couple of years . . . I wasn’t winning major championships. For the most part I wasn’t in contention on the back nine of every major like I like to be. It was nice to get back there again.”
The victory has some wondering if all this contemporary talk about a Big 4 or Big 41/2 or
Big 5 might not be heading back to a Big One.
“He’s so much better than anyone else,” said Joe Ogilvie, a free-thinking Duke man. “You guys pump up the Big Four. Well, in order for there to be a Big Four, Tiger has to be swinging poorly. He’s gifted like no one else is gifted. Mentally he’s better than everyone else. Physically he’s better than everybody else. He’s got the best short game, the best iron game. He doesn’t have to swing his best. If he ever starts hitting the fairway, the game’s over.”
Seems a fair assessment. Only weakness in Woods’ arsenal is a consistently straight tee ball, which has caused him problems recently on courses with high rough, such as Bay Hill and the TPC at Sawgrass, where he tied for 23rd and 53rd, respectively. It remains to be seen whether the driver holds him back at the summer Opens and PGA. Historically, it has been dicey to doubt him. He has won the Masters with three different swings, even more unusual than John Daly winning Tour titles with three different wives.
Woods, of course, was second-guessed for dumping coach Butch Harmon after winning eight majors and changing his swing under the guidance of Hank Haney. This Masters brought relief and confirmation.
“More than anything it’s validation of all the hard work,” Woods said. “Hank and I have put some serious hours into this. I read some of the articles over the past year of him getting ripped and I’m getting ripped for the changes. To play as beautifully as I did this entire week is pretty cool.”
It didn’t start that way for Woods in a tournament plagued by long stoppages the first two days, making this the ninth weather-delayed event out of 15 this year. The Butler Cabin seemed perhaps an insurmountable distance away after Woods opened with an odd 74 in which nothing seemed to go right.
He putted a 70-footer past the cup and into the creek at No. 13. It was suspected he tapped in with a foot on the extension of the putting line at No. 14, but no penalty was assessed because rules chief Will Nicholson Jr. said tape was inconclusive. After turning, he hit the stick on No. 1, but his ball bounced into a bunker and he bogeyed. At the second, he hit a “topped dribble hook” that went about 150 yards, but he saved par. And his first putt at No. 6 rolled back down the hill at him.
“That’s Tiger Woods,” Haney said. “He doesn’t let it get away. The par putts he makes, the bogey putts he makes, the overcoming of bad breaks. He weathered the storm and rode it out. He just has a real strong will and it showed. Just hanging in there and fighting through the first round was so huge.”
Haney said this was the first week Woods “really made a commitment to go with everything we’ve been working on” over the past year. Woods also fine-tuned nightly by taking practice swings inside his rented house. Whatever he did worked.
Woods’ wife of six months, Elin, wore a red T-shirt Sunday that read, “Play the field.” All day Saturday and Sunday morning her husband seemed to be playing with the field while shooting 66-65 in the middle two rounds. Woods went 11 under for 26 holes Saturday and started Sunday’s third-round back nine with four consecutive birdies. Fifteen under for 30 holes often nets hardware.
Breaks help, too. Woods got two big ones at the 10th. He had mud on his tee ball there when play was stopped Saturday, so he was able to hit a clean ball when returning Sunday, and he took advantage by making birdie. Then his drive there in the fourth round hit trees on the left and bounced back into rough instead of going deep into trouble.
It was DiMarco, one of the Tour’s best putters and wedge players, who led by four midway. He needed only 66 putts and made only one bogey through 45 holes, but he went 5 over on the last nine of the third round Sunday morning. He went from four up to three down entering the fourth round because of that and Woods’ birdies at Nos. 10-13, the end of the record-tying seven-birdie streak.
“It can snowball here quick,” said DiMarco, in the final twosome for the second year in a row.
But he bounced back, turned the Masters into a two-man race, outscored Woods 68-71 in Round 4 and tied him at 276, seven strokes better than third place. “Twelve under is usually good enough to win,” DiMarco said. “I just was playing against Tiger Woods.”
DiMarco consistently hit irons close to the stick and made like the house guest who wouldn’t leave despite being outdriven 30 to 80 yards. Woods called him “very gritty,” someone who is “going to be in your face all day.” Had his claw-grip putting not gone cold Sunday until the last nine – he followed the 41 by missing five putts inside of 10 feet on the first 13 holes of the fourth round – he would be wearing green. Same had his birdie chip gone in instead of lipping out on the 72nd hole.
“If you get above the hole out here, you’re putting defensively,” said DiMarco, who also lost a playoff in the last major, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. “And when you’re putting defensively, the subtleties are so great that it’s so easy to miss putts.”
It appeared DiMarco might be finished when he missed a 15-foot uphiller at No. 16 after Woods chipped in from the back left. Woods went two ahead instead of falling to even or one back thanks to what he called “under the circumstances one of the best shots I’ve ever hit.”
If Woods-DiMarco was the main event, then Vijay Singh vs. Phil Mickelson was a fascinating undercard. Buzz surrounded their final-round pairing because they had a contentious confrontation in the champions’ locker room Friday. Michael Buffer and Mills Lane might have been a fitting duo to fill out their foursome. Singh had complained that Mickelson’s cleats marked up the 12th green, and the defending champion said he was “extremely distracted” when officials checked his spikes on No. 13 for a possible burr.
“There’s nothing wrong telling a person he’s spiking up the greens,” said Singh, who led the field in greens in regulation but finished last in putting, three-putting seven times. “It’s protecting the field.”
Mickelson said he overheard Singh talking with other players about it and “confronted” him and expressed disappointment in the way it was handled. One eyewitness said Singh told Mickelson he could “take the first shot.”
“It wasn’t friendly,” said 1970 champion Billy Casper, who made a 14 on the par-3 16th during a first-round 105 and then exuded grace and class afterward. “As Fred Couples said, ‘I’ve been coming here since 1992 and I’ve never heard anything like this before.’ I think players would have interceded (if necessary). Nobody else said anything. It was quiet except for the two of them. It was exciting to say the least.”
On Sunday, Mickelson would play with Singh, double bogey the two back-nine par 3s and then, following custom for the last winner, put the green jacket on rival Woods. And how was your day?
As the TV commercial asks: Wanna get away?
As it happened, Woods got away with another prime chunk of history and dedicated it to his ailing father, Earl, 73. The elder Woods suffered a relapse of prostate cancer last fall and the disease has spread. He has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment but came to the Masters, though he didn’t attend the final round. The son said he hoped the victory would provide his father a “little more fire to keep fighting.”
At the victory ceremony on the putting green, Woods choked up while talking about the man who introduced him to golf.
“My Dad hasn’t been well,” Tiger Woods said. “Every year I’ve won here he’s met me on the 18th but not this year. This is for Dad. I can’t wait to get home and give him a bear hug.”