Augusta, Ga. | Farid Guedra, an Algerian club professional who is a swing consultant to the silky Vijay Singh, eyed the tall leaderboard that stands sentinel left of the 17th fairway at Augusta National, staring in disbelief at all the over-par numbers.
Speaking in broken English, Guedra said, “I don’t understand how all of them . . . their day doesn’t work.”
That pretty much summed up a disappointing afternoon for anyone seeking a little drama at a magical theater called the Masters, a place that had delivered in spades for 65 years. Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia – all world-class players, all poised to make a historic Sunday charge at co-leader Tiger Woods that would thrust them into the rich lore that is Augusta National.
Charging the way Arnold Palmer charged to the third of his four titles in 1962. Emerging the way Gary Player emerged from nowhere by shooting 64 to win in 1978. Waking the masses the way a 46-year-old named Jack Nicklaus, supposedly past his prime, awakened the familiar Augusta National roars in 1986, stirring golf’s most famous cathedral by blistering the second nine in 30 strokes for his sixth green jacket.
This time, the stage seemed set for something special. Sharing the lead was Goosen arguably the hottest guy in the game. Mickelson left late Saturday knowing a low final round was there to be seized. And as Els left his rental house bound for the course early Sunday morning, he confidently told family and friends, “OK, time for me to shoot 64. I’ll be back.”
If only that were so easy on a course that, for all her marvelous beauty, can be one nasty, wicked witch. Instead, for all these so-called stars, pretenders to Woods’ throne, their “day didn’t work.” Expecting a five-star classic like “Citizen Kane,” we instead got “Ishtar.”
Shame on us all. We should know better. The man they all were chasing is the hardest guy to run down since The Fugitive. In simplest terms, every professional card-carrying member in golf these days is Wyle E. Coyote. And guess who plays the Road Runner?
Catch a Tiger. Right. There he goes again. Beep-beep. Zoooooooooooooooom.
“It’s difficult,” says Irishman Padraig Harrington, who tied for fifth, six shots behind the three-time Masters champion. “He’s certainly at a different level than the rest of us. Either we need to raise our games, or he has to come back down to us on a given week.”
Tiger Woods, back down? Sorry, but reverse is a gear he doesn’t possess.
“He only has to worry about himself,” Harrington said. “He’s in the lucky position to know that if he looks after himself, he’s going to be the winner.”
Augusta National can take only part of the credit for transforming Sunday’s final round into a Three Stooges festival.
Woods, who may win so many Masters they’ll one day have to hold the Champions Dinner in a corner booth, also deserves a good deal of credit. Players chase him as if pursuing an indestructible bionic man, knowing they must be precise and perfect to even have a chance. And we all know golf is not a game of perfect, especially on a minefield like Augusta National.
So all of a sudden we watch the aggressive Mickelson firing at pins as early as the third and fourth holes, making bogeys. We have Els, going against his better judgment in trying to cut off too much at the dogleg-left, reachable par-5 13th, knocking two balls into the Rae’s Creek tributary, chopping his way to a triple-bogey 8 like some 15-handicapper from Cheboygan. (“A crazy error. I didn’t listen to myself,” he sighed.) We have Singh, usually one of the game’s most unflappable customers, folding sod over a sand wedge on the par-5 15th, then dunking a second ball, watching his slim opportunity of securing a second green jacket sink to the bottom of the pond. We watch Goosen and his usually trusted swing spray irons all over this former nursery, resulting in a trio of three-putts in the first eight holes of the final round. Four holes after starting even with Woods, the Goose was cooked, four back.
Golf is an individual game, so all these mistakes were self-imposed. Or were they? Woods is the intimidator the others cannot shake from atop the leaderboard, and they cannot free his presence from their minds. It is akin to sitting at a blackjack table, knowing that hitting on 16 is the only way to beat the red-hot dealer. And Woods is the dealer, sitting pretty on 21, smiling widely as he yanks your heart from your chest and rakes in all your chips.
“You can beat Tiger,” mental coach Jos Vanstiphout tells his players, a stable which includes Goosen, Els and Thomas Björn, “but you cannot be Tiger.”
Adds Mickelson, who birdied his first two holes, bogeyed his next two, played solidly but never really threatened, “The thing about Tiger is that he’s the only leader that you don’t have the hope he’ll falter. When other guys are up there, you know that if you can just stay around, there is a good chance they might come back two or three shots.
“Tiger doesn’t seem to do that.”
The result? Tiger keeps forging ahead, and his opponents take high risks in hopes of reeling in birdies on courses that reward patience over bravado. Ask Els. Ask Singh. Ask any of the others Woods has dusted off in his march through golf’s Fab Four.
Woods has won seven of his 21 majors starts as a pro, the kind of high-hitting average (.333) that won’t only get him into the World Golf Hall of Fame, but into Cooperstown as well. At 26, he is more than a year younger than Nicklaus when Nicklaus captured his seventh major (the ’67 U.S. Open), and has four years to commandeer No. 8 in order to stay ahead of Jack’s pace to 18, the ultimate benchmark Woods covets. Forgive him if he’s already home at Isleworth counting the days to Bethpage State Park and this summer’s U.S. Open.
On what could have been a special day in Augusta, Woods once again relegated the rest of a starry field to playing for the ‘B’ Flight championship. Goosen sheepishly accepted that honor, and later joked to an official that as Masters runner-up, maybe he should get a pair of green pants.
Funny, but Sunday at the National, everyone but the champion looked as if they weren’t wearing any at all.