Contenders find it tough to play perfect catch-up

Players put pressure on themselves, knowing Woods is not going to fold

The Masters

April 15, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The theory came from Brad Faxon, the proof from those who tried in vain to stop Tiger Woods from winning his third Masters and seventh major championship yesterday at Augusta National Golf Club.

While Faxon was barely in contention, finishing tied for 12th and 10 strokes behind Woods at 2-under-par 286, the veteran PGA Tour pro could see what was happening to those closer to the lead.

"These guys are behind and they know they've got to make some birdies," said Faxon, who shot 71 yesterday. "You start firing at flags and getting in trouble. You've got to play a patient game. He hasn't any history of folding under the gun."

Woods didn't fold in the final round of the 66th Masters.

Others did.

First it was playing partner Retief Goosen of South Africa. His tee shot on the opening went left into the woods. After a nice recovery to the front of the green, Goosen three-putted from 30 feet for bogey. He would also make bogeys on the par-3 fourth and par-5 eighth.

"I deflated myself out there the first few holes, hitting three three-putts in the first eight holes," said Goosen, the reigning U.S. Open champion who would make a nice comeback with birdies on the par-5 15th and par-3 16th to finish second, three strokes behind. "It put me a little bit down."

Next to flinch in the spotlight was Phil Mickelson. After making birdies on the first two holes to get within two strokes of Woods, Mickelson made bogeys on the next two. While Mickelson kept things together to finish third for the second year, another opportunity at winning his first major had passed.

"Had I shot 67 or 66, I would have had a very good chance today," said Mickelson, who shot a 1-under 71 and finished four strokes behind Woods. "That's not the easiest thing to do Sunday at Augusta. I don't feel as though it was a missed opportunity. I played very solid golf. I didn't have that explosive spurt to vault me up the leader board."

Vijay Singh, who won here two years ago, had that kind of spurt. But it came on Friday, when he beat the rain by a couple of hours to get to 9 under after a 7-under 65. But that's where Singh started yesterday. He was at 10 under through 10 holes.

Trailing Woods by three strokes, Singh bogeyed the par-4 11th, managed to save par after hitting in the water on the par-5 13th and then bogeyed the par-4 14th. Trying to make a miraculous shot on the par-5 15th, Singh put two balls into Rae's Creek and wound up with a quadruple-bogey 9.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els had his chances to catch Woods, but after starting the day with two straight birdies to get to 9 under, and then to 10 under with another birdie at the par-5 eighth, Els bogeyed the par-4 ninth and then hit into the creek on the par-5 13th to make triple-bogey.

It opened the door for two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal to slip into fourth place at 7-under 281 after a 1-under 71.

"I'm very happy with my round," said Olazabal, whose finish was his highest since winning for the second time in 1999. "It is tough to play [against] Tiger. He's the best player in the world and he doesn't give you any room to maneuver. You just have to play your best."

Said Faxon: "Knowing that you have to play mistake-free, I think it gets everybody out of their rhythm and their own game plan."

Told how most of his competitors heaped on the praise about how he won't give in to the pressure, Woods was at his diplomatic best.

`That's awfully nice they think that highly of my game, that I'm not going to make a mistake," said Woods. "I'm trying not to make mistakes, trust me. Generally under these conditions, you're going to make a mistake somewhere. I think I made three bogeys today."

Does he think those in contention press in order to catch him?

"I don't know," he said. "You've got to ask them."

The answers were as obvious as the results yesterday at Augusta National. But at least for one of those in contention, it seems that settling for second or third place is something they might have to get used to again. Just ask Mickelson.

As he watched his wife Amy take their two young daughters into the press room last night, Mickelson seemed like a contented man. He spoke of going to see the movie "The Rookie" earlier this week, the story of former Tampa Bay pitcher Jim Morris, who made the majors at age 38.

"One line that hit home with me was about how excited he was and how lucky he was to play baseball," said Mickelson. "Today I thought I was very lucky to be able to play the final round of the Masters here at Augusta, play the back nine and be on the leader board and play this game for a living and be very fortunate."

All in the shadow of Woods.

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