Strange thing happened on way to Woods' certain victory

Commentary

April 09, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

Augusta, Ga. — Augusta, Ga.-- --Tiger Woods had never failed to win the Masters when he had a lead on Sunday. For that matter, he had never failed to win any major tournament when he had a lead on Sunday.

That suggested the Masters was over when Woods sank a par putt on No. 3 to take over first place by himself yesterday. Yes, it had been a weird tournament with record cold temperatures and record high scores, but the ending, it seemed, was about to be as comfortable and familiar as an old TV program.

Then the strangest thing happened - fittingly, you could say, at the end of such a weird week. Woods gave back the lead, fell into the pack and never recovered.

He rallied to finish tied for second behind the unheralded winner, Zach Johnson, who assumed Woods' customary role, firing a 69 and never flinching down the stretch. But this was Woods as we've never seen him in a major, frustrated and forgiving, as human as everyone else.

His even-par 72 wasn't abysmal, but it contained numerous missteps that prevented him from making a winning charge. He bogeyed Nos. 1, 6 and 10. Registered his day's first and last birdie on No. 2. Rolled a birdie putt past the hole on No. 14. Put his approach shot in a creek on No. 15. Slid a birdie putt past the hole on No. 16. Hit his approach into a trap on No. 17.

After the shot on the 17th, he turned to his caddie, Steve Williams, and said, "What the hell happened?" He was referring to the wind, which he had miscalculated, but his question was an apt summary for his entire round. Indeed, what happened?

One could easily suggest, based on several of his earlier comments, that he got a little too cocky for his own good. Asked before the tournament if he feared a challenge from any younger guys, he said defiantly, "Who?" Then, asked if his first-round 73 had put him too far behind the front-runners, he said, "They're not going anywhere."

Well, one was - and Johnson is wearing a green jacket today.

But Woods made those comments because he is one of the greatest golfers ever and, as part of his winning package, oozes confidence from every pore. His swagger becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that intimidates opponents into making mistakes.

He wasn't being unsporting, just realistic. With a dozen major titles to his credit, he has delivered so faithfully that he surely just expects it now.

But this week, it turned out, was his week to be human for a change, as fallible as the other golfers in the field. He didn't play well all week, or at least, not up to his standards. Over the course of four rounds, he tied for 46th (out of 96) in driving accuracy and tied for 28th in putting. Average stuff.

The only thing that kept him in contention was his ability to avoid meltdowns on greens. Remarkably, he didn't record a single three-putt in 72 holes.

But otherwise, he didn't play consistently enough and committed key gaffes in places where he usually makes up ground. Asked yesterday if he was disappointed with his Sunday round, he referred to his Thursday and Saturday rounds, in which he bogeyed Nos. 17 and 18.

"This one's not disappointing today," he said. "I threw this tournament away on two days when I had good rounds and went bogey-bogey [at the end]. So four bogeys in the last two holes basically cost me the tournament."

Despite all that, he was still in position to challenge after his one magical shot of the week on No. 13 yesterday. Trailing Johnson by four and knowing he had to be bold, he sailed a dramatic long iron to within two feet of the hole. His eagle on the par-5 pulled him to within two shots of Johnson.

Roars echoed as his score went up on leader boards across the grounds; everyone had expected another "Tiger moment," and now, perhaps, it was at hand.

But he was just too human this time, too bereft of shots. It had already been a weird week in which a low-flying bird short-circuited one of his tee shots and he broke a club against a tree, and now, he couldn't sustain his traditional late momentum. He missed putts and found water and sand, game over, thanks for playing.

Johnson, who earned the victory with his steadiness, was mildly flabbergasted to learn he was the first golfer ever to overcome Woods on Sunday at a major.

"They say a giant has to fall at some point and maybe that's the case," Johnson said. "It makes it that much more gratifying knowing that I beat Tiger Woods."

Beat him fair and square, in fact. Beat him by just playing better.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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