Woods' only challenge is proving history wrong

April 13, 2008|By RICK MAESE

AUGUSTA, Ga. — AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --All week long, we've heard about Tiger vs. Jack. And Tiger vs. History. And Tiger vs. Phil ... the golf course ... annoying photographers ...

But here we are today, preparing for the final round of the Masters, and none of that means a thing.

In fact, scanning over the leader board - spotting four names higher than Woods' - today's final round of the Masters isn't even about Tiger taking on Trevor Immelman, Brandt Snedeker, Steve Flesch, Paul Casey or anyone else who has been cast as an extra of what's supposed to be Woods' blockbuster fifth green jacket win.

Today, it's Tiger vs. Tiger - and for the life of me, I have no clue who might win.

We'll shelve the Grand Slam talk for another day. There's one other major achievement missing from Woods' resume, and everyone knows it: Woods has never won a major when trailing after 54 holes. The official numbers: Woods is 13-0 when leading after three rounds and 0-30 when trailing.

After a steady and impressive third round yesterday, Woods meticulously zigged and zagged his way through the field, playing his first round of bogey-free golf of the week. A third-round 4-under-par 68 means he begins today's final round with four golfers separating him from the top spot of the leader board.

Those four golfers have combined for zero championships in majors, and three of them are 30 or younger. Those are disadvantages. Sunday at the Masters is one of the most mentally challenging days on the sports calendar. It preys on the young and inexperienced. But oddly, the biggest mental mountain you'll find out there today is between Woods' swoosh-shaped earlobes. The man with so much focus and so much competitive spirit inexplicably cannot mount a Sunday pursuit. He's a final-round bloodhound following a scent that leads to a Krispy Kreme instead of the trophy stand.

Enough already. How can we realistically talk about a Grand Slam when Woods can only win from the front? He needs to deal with this nagging yoke, and there's no better place to bury that monkey than under the big oak tree outside the clubhouse at Augusta National.

It's the dark cloud that follows him from major to major, and it shouldn't still be lingering. In fact, he should've escaped it at last year's Masters. He entered that Sunday just a shot off the pace and lost by two strokes to a kid from Iowa named Zach Johnson. And then two months later, he found himself in even better position at the U.S. Open, trailing young Aussie pup Aaron Baddeley by two strokes. As expected, Baddeley disappeared on Sunday, but Woods lost by a stroke to Argentine journeyman Angel Cabrera.

And so here we are again. Woods within striking distance, your logic telling you he could win, his history cackling at your optimism.

It's not even the deficit that's really the concern. Sure, six strokes sounds like a lot to overcome in a major, but others have made similar leaps. In 1996, Nick Faldo trailed by five shots entering the final round and won by six. Gary Player made up eight strokes on Sunday in 1978. And Jackie Burke dug his way from a nine-stroke hole in the final round of the 1956 tournament to win.

Woods is capable of finding the strokes. He can play smart, adjust to conditions, handle the crowds and all the champions and challengers breathing down his neck. But he hasn't shown he can do any of that on a Sunday, not when he goes to bed the night before, clutching his pillow instead of the lead.

At a tournament such as the Masters, as grueling mentally as it is physically, it's supposed to help a golfer when he has been here before, among the final-round leaders. And when Woods is at the top, it's certainly his biggest blessing. When's he's losing, though, it's his biggest curse. He has been here before, and that's precisely the problem.

He has to shake the memories of his failures. His best bet is to follow the mental momentum that brought him back into contention yesterday.

Certainly you could have ruled him out after the second round - and plenty did. But he had four birdies yesterday and could've easily finished the round with a few more.

At no point did he seem to notice or care what names or scores surrounded his on the leader board. Woods managed to speak with the same confidence before the tournament as he did after that opening-round 72 and also after yesterday's 68.

"There's no doubt," Woods said yesterday. "I put myself right back in the tournament."

No, there is no doubt. Woods has put himself in position to challenge today.

But is he in position to win?

Sure, there's a big deficit to overcome, but there's only one man in the field who I can even imagine getting in Woods' way - himself.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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