At third hole, this Masters lost its bloom

The Masters

April 14, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With the sun setting over Augusta National, Tiger Woods gave it away.

That would be the green jacket he helped lift over the shoulders of a new Masters champion. That would be Mike Weir. Not Tiger.

The weather was bad early in this major and, Woods would say, he wasn't much better, shooting that crushing 76 in the rain-soaked first round to dig his cleats deep in the Georgia mud.

Three rounds later, Woods' biggest prime-time appearance this Masters Sunday showed him slapping Weir on the shoulders, telling Weir, "Congratulations, buddy," without giving off a whiff of petulance or regret.

If this is the Masters everyone will forget, except for the rain and Martha vs. Hootie, here's a guess: Woods will win another green jacket one April.

Maybe that's why giving away this year's jacket seemed relatively painless. Maybe because so much earlier in the day, Woods knew he had given away this major.

They call the third hole at Augusta National "Flowering Peach." Pretty pleasant and pastoral. Inviting enough. It's a "classic short par-4" with four fairway bunkers to the left about halfway up the 350-yard hole.

No wonder Woods aimed his drive to the right off the tee on 3 yesterday, when the defense of his two-time Masters championship was officially at hand.

It was a good decision to aim right, because Woods was the one who had earlier joked, however politically incorrect, that Augusta National might have used military bombs to blast such deep, treacherous bunkers just to menace him.

There's a reason they call it Tiger-proofing. Best to stay clear of those sandy sinkholes -- except Woods steered too clear. In retrospect, he knew he should have listened to instinct and stuck with an iron because the ill-shaped drive into swirling winds screamed well right.

The ball landed with a crack and an echo of bark-clanging ricochet in the thick patch of trees.

Trouble.

Oh, so soon.

Forget history, which Woods was eager to seize yesterday when three consecutive Masters could have been his. You know Woods likes to achieve his lofty goals. It has been that way since the 2-year-old Eldrick Woods went on The Mike Douglas Show to show off that putter.

Yesterday was going to be a stretch, but consider the things Tiger has done, from the stunning charge at Pebble Beach to his Grand Slam (four consecutive major championships). Still, Woods had never come back to win a major from so far down the leader board, so this Masters finale presented the ultimate challenge when Woods started the final yesterday at a very Tiger-ish (i.e. predatory) 1-under.

The board was like a slab of steak to this stalking Tiger. It was filled with so many players with no major victories under their belts, like Jeff Maggert, Weir and Len Mattiace. The made-for-TV script could have easily called for any and all of those guys to give back shots and turn the proceedings over to Woods.

He was certainly well-positioned to pounce, pleasing not only himself and CBS, but all those millions of Masters-loving couch potatoes across America.

If Tiger's got a shot, the Sunday ratings are hot ... if he could salvage par on Flowering Peach.

It looked good for a minute. Woods' caddie cleared a path within a 10-deep huddle of spectators, then signaled for quiet. Woods, in his poppy-red shirt and black hat, was lost from sight inside the huddle, where he bent over his errant drive and performed with Tiger-esque flair.

Swinging left-handed, turning his wedge backward to dig the ball out from under the branch of an azalea, Woods whacked the shot clean through the trees flush onto the fairway. He left behind a divot amid a cornucopia of pine cones -- five of them -- two small sticks and spray of blush pink azalea flowers.

"Amazing," fans chanted, charging to the ropes for a look at the Masters' master's work.

It certainly looked like the start of a sumptuous title defense -- with a twist. Woods has always won his majors tied or leading in the final round. This was a new challenge. But on this sunny Sunday, Woods' comeback bid at history failed.

"Granted, I hit a good shot to get out, but I also left myself with one of the hardest shots there is on the golf course. I topped it out, then I bladed it. I kept compounding the problem," Woods said later, after the classic par-4 at the third hole turned into a double bogey.

Woods followed with a bogey on the fourth hole and eventually fell to 4-over before recovering to post a 3-over 75 for the day, 2-over for the tournament, and finish tied for 15th.

"With the wind swirling, you get down in that corner, three, four and five, the wind's coming from all different directions," he said, adding: "I didn't drive it consistently."

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