- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Tiger finally has a major dogfight on his hands.
Golf's 26-year-old leviathan scorched Augusta National's soggy layout yesterday, parlaying 26 holes of bogey-free perfection into a share of the lead with reigning U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen heading into the final round of the 66th Masters.
"It was a long day and a tough grind out there. But I felt like I hung in there and really played well," said Woods, who awakened at 4:30 a.m., played the final eight holes of his suspended second round in 2-under and then blitzed up the leader board with an afternoon-best 66 to catch Goosen at 11-under.
"The goal in the afternoon was to get to double digits under par because I knew that would get me right back in the thick of things," Woods added. "I did that, and now I go to sleep tonight knowing I'm in the final group on Sunday, and that's just where you want to be."
Woods guaranteed his slot alongside Goosen in today's final pairing by pouring in a 12-footer for birdie at the 18th hole. When he stalked after the putt, pointing emphatically at the cup a la the 2000 PGA Championship, everybody on the property understood that Woods was proclaiming his dominion over yet another major championship.
But Woods' quest for a seventh Grand Slam title will be protested today by a stronger cast than he ever has faced in a finale. Proving that Augusta National has the most discriminating taste of any layout in the world, the leader board literally reads like a who's who in pro golf. Including Woods and Goosen, the top six spots on the board are all occupied by players ranked among the top seven in the world, a staggering occurrence even at the game's most prestigious tournament.
If Woods claims his third green jacket today by holding off the group of Goosen, Vijay Singh (9-under), Phil Mickelson (7-under), Ernie Els (7-under) and Sergio Garcia (7-under), nobody will be able to say he didn't earn it against the best the game has to offer.
"If we just looked right down the world rankings, that would be a pretty good criteria to see who would play well, and that seems to be the case," No.2-ranked Mickelson said after moving into position under Woods with an afternoon 68. "It seems like all the top 10, for the most part, are up there."
Among that stellar group, perhaps the player most likely to match Woods shot-for-shot today is Goosen. Nobody in the world, including Woods, has been hotter than Goosen over the past 11 months. Starting with his breakout victory at the Open last June, the 33-year-old has collected seven victories worldwide in less than a year, including last week's triumph in the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta.
Yesterday Goosen showcased the same sparkling skills with the short stick that carried him to victory at Southern Hills last June, using just one putt on 11 holes en route to a third-round 69. Equally important is Goosen's unflappable demeanor and previous experience against Woods.
Two years ago, the mellow South African pushed Woods to the limit at the World Match Play Championships at La Costa before falling 1-down to golf's titan in the round of 16. And just last year, Goosen played with Woods in the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, edging him by a stroke at Atlanta Athletic Club. While neither incident proves he will whip Woods head-to-head today, both prove Goosen can hold up to the pressure of playing amid the circus that is Woods' gallery.
"I certainly understand what it's like playing with him and what goes with that," Goosen said. "I enjoy playing with Tiger. He's a nice guy. I'm just going to go out there and try and focus on my own game. Obviously, it's going to be difficult to totally block out everything that will go on out there tomorrow, but I'm looking forward to the round. It's going to be great fun."
If Goosen doesn't sound particularly daunted by the task at hand, it's no surprise. Like countryman Els, Goosen seems so laid back on the course that at times he almost looks indifferent. That placid demeanor is likely to be valuable against Woods, who tends to send his opponents into stress-induced death spirals.
"I think Retief is pretty comfortable right now," said Singh, who played with Goosen in the last group yesterday. "You know he's just going to maintain his own rhythm. He's in his own world out there. I don't think his heart rate ever gets over 100."
It might if he decides to take a gander at Woods' record in tournaments he leads after three rounds. During his professional career, Woods has won 26 of the 30 events in which he has held or shared the lead entering the final round. That record is even better in the majors, where Woods has never blown a lead in such a situation.
"I've been there before, and I look forward to it," said Woods, careful not to provide any overly confident soundbites for his opponents. "I really wanted to get into that final group."
Despite his record, however, Woods has never faced such a formidable field of challengers. And it's a safe bet that at least one of the five major contenders surrounding him will warm to today's green jacket chase.
"Tiger is certainly going to be the guy to beat because he's done it so many times before," the 22-year-old Garcia said after a third-round 70 marred by a handful of near-misses. "But he's got some very strong players chasing him proven players who don't back away.
"There's no doubt he's a great player, and that's why he's won so many majors and so many tournaments in so little time. But I strongly think that the gap is closing, and we're trying to make it even closer. Today could be very exciting."

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