Tiger will need to be in his Sunday best

April 08, 2001|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. - You can separate Tiger Woods' five major tournament championships into two groups: the ones he won by a landslide, and the ones he won in duels with up-from-nowhere players such as Bob May and Sergio Garcia.

Never, in other words, has he spent the last round of a major fending off a large, hungry pack, including many of the world's best players. But he'll have to take such a test and pass it today in the final round of the Masters if he is to become the first modern-era golfer to hold all four major championship trophies at the same time.

It's a feat that would rank as the greatest in modern golf history, and appropriately, the final test is shaping up as the toughest. Woods has the lead after 54 holes at Augusta National, but the world's second-best player, a British Open champion and a two-time U.S. Open champion are among the group of six golfers within three shots of him.

If he can beat that crowd in a walk today at Augusta National, well, it's time to check his passport for extraterrestrial stamps.

A more likely scenario has at least a couple of down-to-the-wire challenges emerging from a pack of contenders including Phil Mickelson, Mark Calcavecchia, Ernie Els and David Duval.

Why no romp?

For starters, because even though he is 12-under through 54 holes, Woods isn't quite at the top of his game this week, suggesting yesterday that he "plodded" through his third round on his way to a 68 for which almost anyone else in the field would have traded.

"More than anything, I'm in a competing mood," he said ominously and with a smile.

Expect Mickelson and Calcavecchia, in particular, to compete right back at him today.

Mickelson, ranked No. 2 in the world, has beaten Woods twice in the past 15 months in Sunday confrontations on the PGA Tour, so he isn't the least bit intimidated. And with zero major titles to his credit in 30 career tries, he obviously has the most to prove.

You could sense his urgency yesterday in the way he doggedly rebounded from a pair of disasters - a three-putt from 3 feet on No. 8 and a flopped chip resulting in a double-bogey on No. 14 - to birdie the last two holes and end up a stroke behind Woods. He also rebounded Friday after hitting a ball in the water on No. 12.

With two double-bogeys, four bogeys and 19 birdies in the tournament so far, he has experienced enough highs and lows to knock almost anyone else out of the running. That Mickelson, 30, still trails Woods by just a stroke says a lot about his motivation.

"I desperately want this," he said yesterday.

Unlike Mickelson, Calcavecchia, 40, won a major title relatively early in his career, chasing away that pressure. His 1989 British Open victory established him as a rising American star with a brilliant short game and all the shots a champion would need. He'd lost the 1988 Masters by just a stroke and it seemed he'd win many more majors before he was done.

More than a decade later, he is still looking for that second major title.

"I haven't even contended in the Masters since 1988," he said yesterday.

What happened? As happens to so many, he lost his putting touch and his confidence, in that order. How bad was his putting at its worst? Seeking to show reporters yesterday, he grabbed two water bottles, put them on the desk in the interview room about 18 inches apart and said, "Anything longer than that was 50-50."

Brutal.

"I was one of the worst on the tour for three or four years," he said. "Just horrific."

That he never fell out of the top 50 on the PGA money list is an indication of how complete and spectacular the rest of his game was and still is. The guy can really play. And now his putting touch is back thanks to an oddball grip in which it almost appears he is hitchhiking with his right thumb. He used it to shoot the lowest 72-hole score in PGA history (256) earlier this year at the Phoenix Open.

After shooting 66 Friday and 68 yesterday, he is a portrait of confidence heading into the final round trailing Woods, his frequent practice partner, by two strokes.

"I hit a lot of good shots today," Calcavecchia said, "and what's more important, I knew they were going to be good before I hit `em."

Others close to Woods include Chris DiMarco, the Masters rookie who, improbably, held up for a third straight round yesterday; Els, the two-time U.S. Open champ who has shot back-to-back 68s; and Duval, who has challenged on the final day in each of the past three Masters.

When Woods was asked if he would approach today's final-round pairing with Mickelson as a winner-take-all, he immediately shook his head. No way.

"There are a lot of good players on that board who have a wonderful chance of winning if they score a good, solid round," Woods said. "That's the fun of it. We're going to go out there and compete."

Duval studied the leader board and shrugged.

"I would think everyone is happy," he said. "What more could you ask for? I mean, isn't this what everyone wanted?"

Indeed, it is. A perfect platform for Woods to make history. But a whole stable of dangerous potential spoilers right behind him.

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