Woods has strength to go distance for victory

The Masters

April 09, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, GA. — Augusta, Ga.-- --In the short term, the rain that interrupted the third round of the Masters yesterday was the players' friend. Starting after a four-hour, 18-minute delay and devouring a previously dry course softened by water, leader Chad Campbell birdied the first two holes as Phil Mickelson birdied the first three. Tim Clark gained three shots. Tiger Woods, Rocco Mediate and Padraig Harrington gained two.

But the gains were the kind of immediate gratification one accepts knowing it comes with long-range problems attached. Now comes the hard part, a final day in which the leaders must make up the holes they didn't play yesterday because of the rain. Campbell and Mediate will play 32 holes today. Mickelson, Clark, Ernie Els and Fred Couples will play 31.

All the contenders will be playing early and late at Augusta National, and one figures to benefit most. Even though the temperature isn't expected to exceed 70, playing at least a round and a half of major championship golf in any weather is a grueling physical and mental test. The golfers in the best shape will have a distinct edge, and Woods, in his physical prime at age 30, is the fittest man on the PGA Tour.

The longer the rains fell yesterday, the clearer Woods emerged as the favorite to win his fifth green jacket today.

That might sound ludicrous with Woods currently sitting three strokes behind Campbell, and with Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Mickelson also on the leader board. Throw out Campbell and that's the world's best five golfers. With all of them in the running, the tournament, at the very least, would seem to be up for grabs.

But a marathon day sets up perfectly for Woods.

Not only is he the best golfer of them all to begin with - "as long as he's upright, he's close," Mediate said yesterday - but he is farther into his third round than most of the other leaders, having played nine holes yesterday before darkness finally halted play. He has just 27 holes to go, five fewer than Campbell.

The role of fitness in deciding golf championships is, of course, dubious. As much as Woods is a specimen, most of the world's top players, even those with bulging bellies, can play a day's round and more without suffering. Massive, chain-smoking John Daly even wins now and then, quite a commentary on the role of fitness in golf.

Oh, occasionally, someone who has eaten too much ice cream falters because of it, but Woods usually wins just because he is better, not fitter.

Still, playing more than 30 holes of the lengthened Augusta National in one day is approaching the supreme test of any golfer's ability to endure.

"Walking 18 holes around here is quite a chore. So, 32, we have our work cut out for us," Campbell said of the long day ahead. "It's going to be tough, but I don't think winning any major is easy."

With all due respect, Campbell is packing a few extra pounds, as is Mickelson. Mediate has that bad back. ("I knew the rain was coming," he joked.) Couples is 46, and his back hurts, too.

Of those other than Woods, Singh, 43, and Goosen probably are in the best shape.

But Woods, an unshakable Sunday closer to begin with, is in his own category.

Some observers wondered before the tournament whether he would be too upset about his father's health to successfully defend his title, which he won a year ago in a playoff with Chris DiMarco. Earl Woods is fighting cancer, and Tiger Woods played indifferently in his most recent tournaments before the Masters, finishing tied for 22nd in The Players Championship and tied for 20th in the Bay Hill Invitational. Before the TPC, Woods was concerned enough to cancel a practice round and fly from Florida to California to visit Earl.

Coming to Augusta - a place that Woods admits stirs poignant memories of his father - figured to test his famed powers of concentration. He started slowly, dipping below par only near the end of the first 36 holes. But he put up two birdies and seven pars yesterday, seemingly sharpening right before everyone's eyes.

His test will be more mental than physical today, and given his remarkable record of delivering major championships, one is advised not to bet against him.

"I've been dealing with it for years, so, really, nothing has changed," he said last week about his father's cancer. "It is what it is, and you just deal with it. Everyone who has had a family member live a long time, you're going to deal with it sometime. Unfortunately, it's our time now."

He is in control emotionally, superior physically, and in perfect position to make his move.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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