2008 Masters: Tiger’s Grand hopes slammed by putter

Augusta, Ga. | By the time he boarded TWA (Tiger Woods Airlines) at Daniel Field, about a 15-minute drive from Magnolia Lane, Tiger Woods, as usual, was loaded down with Masters hardware. He always is.

He had a medal, some silver, a crystal vase and two crystal goblets, trinkets for his opening-round eagle at Augusta National’s 15th. Oh, and $810,000 for little Sam’s college account. For most, a pretty good haul. After four hard-fought days at the 72nd Masters, he’d managed to close the gap on Jack Nicklaus, too.

Only it wasn’t the gap he was looking to narrow. Fresh tote board for runner-up finishes in major championships: Nicklaus 19, Woods 5.

“I didn’t come here to finish second, that’s for sure,” said a dejected Woods.

That he didn’t, but that’s where he ended up, undone by poor putting, taxing Sunday conditions, a gritty little unyielding South African and a buff, new-look Augusta National that isn’t the same driver-wedge thrill ride Woods assailed when he cruised to the first of four green jackets in 1997.

At 32, Woods has won 64 PGA Tour events, 13 majors and accumulated enough cash to eclipse the GNP of several G8 nations. The fact the tiny universe that is golf entered the first major of the season even whispering the words “Grand Slam” (one Las Vegas shop offered odds of a Woods Slam at an unheard-of 9/2) testifies to this man’s heightened stature in the modern game.

To suggest Woods has any glaring blemishes on his resume is ludicrous. So let’s call it the nitpickiest, tiniest of microscopic pinholes: He has never won a major from behind. Sunday at Augusta National, six back, he needed to overtake four players who boasted half as many Tour victories as he had majors. But the day came and went, and that pesky little elephant remains in the room. Six shots or fewer out on Sunday, he’s 0-for-16. Thirteen majors, all from the front.

Of course, leave it to articulate Tour veteran Paul Goydos to properly affix a little context to this stat, which he did earlier this season: “It’s rough when your only weakness is that you’ve never won a major from behind.

“Wow. Neither have I.”

However, it’s not altogether meaningless data, either. Woods began Sunday needing a fast start to awake the echoes that can rattle Augusta National’s tallest pines and create some noise that could send a message shivering down a young leader’s spine. It didn’t happen.

Woods made par at the 575-yard second hole and missed a tiddler at the par-3 fourth. He turned in even par, and played the par 5s – once his meal ticket – without a birdie. Granted, the day was an absolute beast – winds gusted to 25 mph – but when Woods did get his chances, he didn’t seize them. It added up to a 72, which seemed so, well, un-Tigerlike. The master plan was to post a number in the 60s, push his name up the board and turn up the heat on Trevor Immelman, who was in new territory holding a lead on a major Sunday.

“But I didn’t do my part,” Woods said.

Here’s the unbeatable Tiger major formula: Avoid three-putts and double bogeys, attack the par 5s, and more often than not, he wins.

He stayed away from the dreaded doubles and others, something many could not do at the toughened Augusta, but he would three-putt thrice during the week, and it would cost him. Upon the slickest, most convoluted greens this side of Oakmont, Woods was “dragging” his blade, which led to him not getting his usual overspin. As a result, his putts weren’t starting on a perfect line. At The National, imperfect putts stay above the ground. Here’s Woods’ killer stat for the week: Twenty-three chances from inside 40 yards to get up and in, and he converted four times. That’s 17 percent.

As for the fact he still has yet to catch somebody at a major, let’s be realistic: Thirteen times he hasn’t needed to catch a soul. But this particular weekend chase was a tad different. In the four-plus years Woods and Hank Haney have worked together, Haney said never before had Woods been on top of his game when he was doing his chasing. This time, tee to green, he was. Steve Williams, who has been on Woods’ bag for a decade (helping him capture three of his four green jackets), never had seen him strike the ball so well at Augusta.

“This week he was behind and playing great,” said Haney, walking the back nine Sunday as his man never quit fighting. “That’s a different dynamic. Tiger is so good, if he’s on top of his game, he’s not behind. This whole come-from-behind thing . . . I mean, what’s the list? Did Nicklaus do it a lot?”

He did. Of Nicklaus’ 18 major victories, eight came when he hunted down a player from behind on Sunday. The most memorable of those comebacks came in 1986 at Augusta.

Tiger has yet to find that magic. When Woods’ hopes of winning were extinguished in the middle of the back nine Sunday – somewhere about the time he missed a 5-footer at 13, then compounded a poor approach at 14 with one last three-putt – so, too, went the flickering flames of a Grand Slam, one “easily within reason.”

Don’t shoot the messenger; Woods was the one who brought it up. If somebody else did, we immediately would declare him insane.

Woods reasoned that he’d won all four major championships (each at least twice), held all four trophies at one point (2000-01) and has won four or more events in nine seasons. The logic was there. He just needed to win the right four, and the first two were on courses (Augusta National and Torrey Pines) where he’s an overwhelming favorite. This was practically a good-good deal into the British Open.

Golf was eager, desperate even, to ride those coattails.

But you can’t win all four if you don’t win the first one. Despite all those nice baubles that made it onto that flashy jet with Woods late Sunday, there was one passenger glaringly absent: the champion’s green jacket.

Talk about a slam.

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