Augusta, Ga. | To butcher Shakespeare, all the world ranking’s a stage. So it was at the Masters, golf’s Broadway. Rarely has a 54-hole leaderboard appeared so decorated. Leading man after leading man at the top. Bright lights, gaudy marquee. Six of the seven most highly rated were there, bunched within four strokes, poised for high Sunday drama.
Instead, a series of accidents broke out. Protagonists kept tripping and falling. There was one left standing.
Once again, only Tiger Woods walked away unscathed, if you ignore the mud on his custom-made slacks.
Just when professional golf was trying to convince itself the gap between Woods and mortals was closing, the 26-year-old widely considered the game’s most dominant ever provided sobering evidence to the contrary. The little white decal on his rear-view mirror perhaps should read, “Objects are farther away than they appear.” For sake of truth in advertising, the PGA Tour might want to alter its slogan. This guy is good.
The only chasm narrowing is the one between Woods and Jack Nicklaus. The only golf numbers that matter now are 18 and 7, the major victory totals of the Bear and the heir.
“The worst misconception is the No. 1 player needs a No. 2 to push him,” Earl Woods said in Sunday evening sunshine outside Augusta National’s Eisenhower cabin after his son won his third Masters in six years. “Tiger is pushed by history and records and goals and his own initiative.”
Here’s history: Woods has won six of the last 10 major championships. That’s 60 percent, an average meteorologists might envy.
“It’s like a forest fire is coming and you don’t have anything to stop it,” the elder Woods said.
Here’s spinning records: Woods became the youngest to win seven Grand Slam trophies. No one has won three green jackets in fewer starts. Only Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have won more Masters. Only Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) also have hung coats in their closets in consecutive years.
Here’s initiative: When ahead or sharing PGA Tour leads after 54 holes, Woods is 23-2, including 7-0 in majors. As closers go, Mariano Riviera pales by comparison.
“Have you ever seen a rabbit try to chase another rabbit?” the elder Woods said. “If you blink your eyes and open them, you see the position is just the same. If one goes faster, the other goes faster. Tiger is constantly improving and will get better and better and better. Whether these other guys get better or not is inconsequential.”
Here’s a goal: Grand Slam this year. “Well, I’ve done four in a row before, but it would be nice to do it four in a row in the same year,” Woods said after his 12-under-par 276 dusted Retief Goosen by three, Phil Mickelson by four, José Maria Olazábal by five and Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington by six.
Here’s another goal: 19 majors. “He can win as many as he wants,” Earl Woods said. “Someday he’ll realize there are more important things than golf and evolve into a humanitarian person.”
When Woods was an amateur, Nicklaus said the kid would win as many Masters as he and Palmer combined. That would be 10. At the time the statement was considered outlandish. Now it makes sense.
“Other people laughed at Jack,” said Earl Woods, long far ahead of the curve on Tiger projections. “They laughed at me, too. Jack recognizes talent more than I do. It’s like seeing a Rembrandt. He sees strokes and genius. I see pretty colors. He knows what he’s looking at. I took a lot of credibility out of what he said.”
For the moment, Woods is into 3s. Three-shot victory. Three Masters titles. Three U.S. Juniors. Three U.S. Amateurs. Three victories at Nicklaus’ tournament, three at Palmer’s.
On Saturday night before this latest gem, Woods had dinner with family and friends. Father happily noticed his son was relaxed. It reminded him of the golfer’s demeanor before the 36-hole final of the Pacific Northwest Amateur a decade ago. “He was quiet back then and all of a sudden he said, ‘Pop, I feel comfortable.’ ” The next day Woods made nine birdies in the first 18 holes en route to an 11-and-10 victory. “That,” the father said, “is what can happen when Tiger is calm and in the zone.”
Woods won this time without his Sunday best. While shooting 71 on a National course lengthened by 285 yards and softened by rain, he made three bogeys, just one fewer than he had the first 54 holes. He bogeyed two of the last eight and still won by three. He hit only seven of 14 fairways. His finishing kick looked Nicklausian, for he played conservatively while other contenders made mistakes. For a while, like when he was five strokes up with three holes left, it appeared he could have beaten everybody using a proposed limited-flight Masters ball.
This victory was built upon the 32-34 he shot on the back nine Saturday and the front Sunday. He picked up seven shots during that 18, going from four strokes off the lead at the turn in the third round to three shots ahead midway in the fourth. He went from 7 under to 13. His third-round 66 was the day’s best by two and came after he completed eight holes of the rain-delayed second round. He spent 13 hours at the course Saturday.
Tied with Goosen at minus-11 starting Sunday, Woods birdied Nos. 2 and 3 from inside 7 feet, chipped in at 6 and never led by fewer than three strokes the rest of the way. “He was just cruising in,” Goosen said. “He wasn’t taking any chances. He was just hitting to the safe sides on every hole.”
It helped that Woods knew, in his words, “what it takes to win here.” It helped that he went 5-2 at Nos. 5-6, where he could’ve just as easily gone 6-3. A tree stopped his snap hook from going deep into woods at the fifth, and, from behind the sixth green, he chipped in from 30 feet. After that, no one applied tight pressure. Others erred while playing daring catch-up.
“(Woods) is the only leader where you don’t have hope that he’ll falter,” Mickelson said, echoing remarks by Goosen. “That being the case, you’ve got to go after him and make birdies. That’s why you see aggressive plays. We all tried to make birdies. When you do that, you open the door to bogeys.”
It was a mass meltdown. The potential shootout turned into a NASCAR-like pileup. Granted, conditions were difficult, what with tucked pins and mud on balls causing errant shots. As it happened, only one player broke 70 – Shigeki Maruyama with 67. Only one final round in the last three decades has yielded fewer sub-70 rounds. One reason was a longer course that over 72 holes played one stroke harder than last year’s 72.49 average.
“I believe these guys are trying to be the best they can be,” Earl Woods said, “but there’s a limitation on talent.”
For a while the primary chasers stunk worse than the course itself, which smelled like a horse farm or circus because of the manure-based fertilizer in the grass-turned-mud walking areas. Perhaps as a fitting tribute to Arnold Palmer’s 48th and final Masters, the challengers sometimes played like the 72-year-old. One award-winning newspaper columnist was seen checking his dictionary for synonyms for “vomit” and “barf.”
“I’ve never seen a Sunday like this in my life,” said Ken Venturi, in his 35th and last Masters as CBS analyst.
Mickelson (71) started birdie-birdie but bogeyed three of the next five holes. He also was hurt by short-game problems on Nos. 12-14 in Round 2, where poor chipping led to two bogeys sandwiching a blown birdie chance at 13. He led Singh by one entering 12 in that second round but ended the day six behind.
Ernie Els was 9 under and three back Sunday until he made a triple-bogey 8 at 13, where hooked a 3-wood left of the creek, hit a risky punch into the creek and, and after dropping, sent his fourth short into the greenside ditch.
“I made a terrible swing at 13 and it cost me the tournament,” said Els, who tied for fifth, six strokes back, despite shooting 38-39 on the back nine on the weekend. “I got greedy and tried to hook a 3-wood around the corner.”
Vijay Singh (76) was four back until making a quadruple-bogey 9 at 15, where he rinsed two wedge shots into the fronting pond. “That was the end of that,” said Singh, the midway leader on the strength of a second-round 65. Singh also made three bogeys and failed to birdie 13 Sunday, saving par after his mud-ball approach to the right pin rolled down in the Rae’s Creek tributary. “It was about 1 foot from being perfect,” he said.
Goosen (74), who struggled with his irons, and Sergio Garcia (75) each bogeyed four of the first 11 holes. As it happened, Goosen three-putted three times from 30-40 feet and ended up three back.
“Do I get the green pants for finishing second,” the normally serious Goosen cracked to an official.
Has it come to that? Everybody else competing for matching trousers?
“Well, if he wants to wear green pants,” Woods said, smiling. “I’ll just stick with a green coat.”
A year ago, Woods won his fourth consecutive major here. The stress led to illness afterward. This felt different. “This year was just a physical grind,” he said. “Last year, having a chance to win all four major championships in a row, that was a mental test to try and block everything out.”
This was a week when, predictably, long hitters dominated. When the winner came out of the final twosome for the 12th consecutive year. When only two Americans finished in the top 11, making one wonder if the Yanks haven’t become as soft as the course was.
It was an odd week from the start. Five aces fell in the Wednesday Par-3 Contest, including consecutive holes-in-one by Toshi Izawa. The next day Sam Snead, 90 next month, beaned a man with his tee shot as honorary starter. Palmer’s 89-85 in his final Masters meant the major story for two days came at the bottom of the scoreboard instead of at the top. And it was a rough week on bad golf pants. Numerous onlookers slipped and fell in the mud, including Reed Mackenzie, rules official and USGA president.
By Sunday afternoon, however, Woods had restored world order.