- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. Even the great ones have to settle for second every now and then. They play well, somebody else plays better. What are ya gonna do?

Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships as a pro, but he was also a bridesmaid 18 times. Lee Trevino beat him head-to-head in four majors. So did Tom Watson. Arnold Palmer beat him. Gary Player beat him. Seve Ballesteros beat him. Charles Coody beat him (by two in the '71 Masters). It's one of the prices of excellence. You're always giving people the opportunity to knock you off your throne.

Tiger Woods presented his peers with another such opportunity in the final round of the Masters yesterday, maybe the best opportunity they've had. His lead was a mere stroke, and he was being stalked by the top players in the game Phil Mickelson, David Duval, Ernie Els, a reborn Mark Calcavecchia. This was a much different situation from his blowout victories at Augusta National in '97 and at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews a year ago. It wasn't like duking it out with unknown Bob May in the PGA last August or with 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in the PGA before that. There was danger, danger everywhere.

Once again, though, Tiger prevailed. Once again, everybody blinked but him. That's probably the scariest thing about his dominance the past two-plus years. No one has been able to stand up to him in the big events. Oh, they've given him a run a time or two as Mickelson and Duval did yesterday but Woods always wins in the end.

Not even Nicklaus was that all-conquering. He was a player for the ages, sure, but every now and then a Trevino or a Watson would remind him that he was mortal, that he could, indeed, be had. We're still waiting for somebody to bring Tiger back to earth, and you get the feeling it's only going to be harder to do it in the future. After all, his cup runneth over with confidence right now winning the Backdoor Slam will do that for you and his opponents are on the verge of drowning in self-doubt.

Mickelson tried to put a positive spin on his disappointing defeat. "I feel as though my game is to a point where I can finally win these [major] tournaments and contend in them regularly," he maintained. But in the next breath he said, "If I'm going to win with Tiger in the field, though, I cannot make the mistakes that I have been making. I've got to eliminate those somehow. I may be able to make one or two, but I can't make as many as I've made this week, from double bogeys on 12 and 14 earlier in the week to four bogeys today that were really not tough pars.

"I just can't afford to keep throwing shot after shot away. I don't feel as though I'm that far off, I just think that mentally I'm not there for all 72 [holes]. I feel like I'm just slacking off on two or three, and it's cost me some vital strokes."

None was more vital than the stroke he dropped on the par-3 16th, when he was coming off a birdie on 15 that had put him at 14 under, a shot behind Tiger (and even with Duval). He pulled a 7-iron to the top shelf of the green "the one place I can't hit it" and three-putted down the slippery slope for a bogey. What a killer. But that wasn't the only thing that did him in. He also missed short putts left and right, just as he did on the final day of the '99 U.S. Open. Tiger, on the other hand, missed only a couple of shorties a 6-footer on 12 and a 3-footer (for par) on 15 that lipped out.

And, of course, Duval missed the biggest of all from 5 feet on 18, when a birdie would have tied him with Woods at 15 under. But it might not have mattered, because Tiger a closer in the Dennis Eckersley mold ran in a 15-footer on the same hole a few minutes later to finish at 16 under, just two strokes off his Masters record.

"It's difficult to win any one of these major golf tournaments," Duval, who's still empty-handed, said admiringly. "To have your game at the right place at the right time, you know, there's an art to that… . I'm not so sure there's something you could compare [Tiger's four straight major championships] with, certainly in modern golf."

I'm not so sure, either. Capturing the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA and Masters in succession was so unfathomable … until Woods pulled it off. It's like something out of a Walt Disney movie "The Computer Wore Golf Shoes." Even Tiger, an inveterate goal-setter, never dreamed such dreams.

"I'm amazed I was able to play as well as I was able to play when I needed to," he said. "I think that's where a lot of the hard work goes into it, the hours that you spend by yourself on the range, the putting green, the chipping green, out on the course late in the evening, making yourself work that extra little bit, because you're probably going to need it."

"To win four in a row … The golfing gods must be looking down on me the right way."

Looking down on him? With yesterday's victory, Woods has joined the golfing gods at an age (25) when most players are still trying to find their way from Riviera to Doral.

"It's clear somebody has to play and beat him," Duval said, if there's to be any hope for the rest of golf.

It's just not clear who that somebody is going to be.

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