- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — All hail the return of the king.

The 69th Masters likely will be remembered as the major in which Tiger Woods reclaimed his crown.

When Tiger Woods drilled a 15-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a playoff with Chris DiMarco yesterday to win his fourth green jacket, there was little doubt golf had witnessed a landmark event at Augusta National.

“More than anything it’s a validation of all the hard work I’ve been doing,” Woods said after winning his first major since the 2002 U.S. Open — and his first with a swing that was built by Hank Haney and not Butch Harmon. “I read some of the articles over the past year where Hank was getting ripped and I was getting ripped for making swing changes. To play as beautifully as I did this entire week is pretty cool. … I do feel like I’ve turned a corner.”

Sure, the victory marked a slump-busting major moment for the game’s once and future king as Woods shattered his 10-Slam slump in fist-pumping fashion and proved his swing-change naysayers wrong. But it was the way Woods won that reaffirmed his sublime skills and unparalleled greatness.

Not since Bob May pushed him to the brink of defeat at the 2000 PGA Championship has Woods entered the final round of a major with the lead and faced such a stern challenge from an opponent. Most opponents wilt in face-to-face Slam showdowns with Woods, who entered yesterday’s finale with an 8-0 record in such circumstances.

Apparently, DiMarco didn’t get the memo, though he looked to all the world like another patsy during the conclusion of the third round yesterday morning, when he lost seven strokes to Woods during a back-nine 41. After playing 45 holes of the best golf ever at Augusta National to reach 13 under, DiMarco seemed to have turned himself into a verb (to DiMarco — to fold up in spectacular fashion) before CBS had the chance to turn on its Sunday cameras. And when the 36-year-old staggered out of third-round play with all the color of a corpse and three strokes in arrears of the greatest closer golf has ever seen, it was hard to envision anything other than an 18-hole afternoon victory lap for Woods.

Not so. DiMarco bettered Woods in the afternoon, posting a final-round 68 that easily could have been lower had he made a few front-nine putts. He carded clutch birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 to reach 12 under and keep the pressure on Woods, who was just one ahead. And when Woods authored perhaps the most memorable shot in the game’s storied history at the 16th, a soul-snatching, opportunity-quashing chip-in that would have lobotomized lesser men, DiMarco still had the focus to capitalize on Woods’ closing-hole bogeys.

“I played great. And Tiger played great,” said DiMarco, now thrice a bridesmaid in the last five majors. “I guarantee you he’s exhausted because I gave him a battle out there.”

Said Woods: “I was playing with one heckuva competitor out there in Chris. We all know this as players, but there’s no back-off in him. He’ll come at you tooth and nail, in your face, all the way.”

And fact is, it continues to be the second-tier players (the DiMarcos and Mays and Rich Beems), and not the other members of the Fab Four, who have pushed Woods to the ultimate heights of greatness in his career.

Witness Woods’ chip-in at No. 16. OK, Davis Love might have holed nearly the same circus shot several years ago. But not playing in the last group … with a one-stroke lead … with the whole world watching. In terms of style points, no chip-in in history comes close. Apologies to Tom Watson (1982 U.S. Open), Bob Tway (1986 PGA) and Larry Mize (1987 Masters), but your shots didn’t cover more ground in reverse than in the air, nor come to dramatic stops before plunging underground.

Then witness Woods’ playoff comeback. Just when it seemed like it might be the first official chokejob of Woods’ career, Tiger again rose to meet the moment. Sure, he bogeyed the final two holes to give DiMarco a chance, spraying a drive left at the 17th and blocking an approach to the 18th. But when the green jacket was on the line and the stress level was at sudden-death intensity, Tiger striped a perfect 3-wood down the middle, launched a towering 8-iron to 15 feet and coolly coasted home the clinching birdie putt.

“It’s special,” Woods said. “You know, I’ve kind of battled the last couple of years to work hard on my game and make some changes. I wasn’t winning major championships. … And for the most part, I wasn’t in contention on the back nine of every major like I like to be. That’s where you want to be. It was nice to get back there again and be in contention with a chance to win coming up the back nine on Sunday. It’s a thrill.”

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