- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Strange things happened in the final round of the Masters when someone tried to take one, last run at Tiger Woods. Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, a couple of pretty fair country golfers, both tempted the fates, and their rounds quickly turned into the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
Plunk, plunk
went two of Els' shots at the par-5 13th. Smack in the water. Instead of the eagle he was hoping for, he found himself staring face-to-face with an abominable "snowman" a triple-bogey eight. Say goodnight, Ernie.
The same misfortune befell Singh at the par-5 15th. Twice his approach shot dove into the creek guarding the front of the green. By the time he finally got his ball in the hole, he'd taken nine whacks at it. If an eight is a snowman, what's a nine an igloo?
So it goes here at Augusta National. Augusta may be the Course That Bobby Jones Built and the Masters the Tournament That Arnie and Jack Made Famous but Woods obviously holds the deed to the place now. Three green jackets in six years, the last two back-to-back, is more than mere domination; it's an annexation. Maybe we should start calling it the Tiger Invitational or Woods Vs. the World. No matter what the greencoats do to toughen up the track longer holes, bigger bunkers, poisonous snakes in the rough, alligators in the water hazards Woods has an answer for it. More of an answer, at least, than anybody else.
If ever someone was going to catch Tiger by the toe, it seemed like it would be yesterday. Granted, he was tied for the lead at 11 under as the walked to the first tee, but he was being stalked by the flower of a golf generation Els, Singh, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal, not to mention up-and-comers like Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington. A couple of false steps by Woods, and one of those guys might have made off with the title. All were quite capable of shooting a low number.
It didn't happen, though. Tiger opened the door a crack by carding a workmanlike 71 to finish at minus-12, but none of the contenders could seize the day. Mickelson had his usual "Lord of the Rings" final round one scary adventure after another and wound up four shots back despite three birdies in the first six holes. Goosen never got anything going. Els and Singh both were at 10 under for a spell but then came undone on the back nine. No one else even showed up on Woods' radar screen.
At this point, you have to wonder who's going to challenge his hegemony here, who's going to keep him from fulfilling Jack Nicklaus' prediction in '96 that Tiger would win more green jackets than he and Arnie Palmer combined (10). Woods, after all, is quite the collector. He has now won three Masters, three NEC Invitationals (in a row), three Memorials (in a row), and three Bay Hills (in a row). Once he establishes that he likes a course, he basically takes it over.
Augusta is to Woods what Wimbledon is to Pete Sampras. And the recent modifications may have made it even more so. As Tiger put it yesterday, "It's more of a mental test now because of the lengthening [of some of the holes]" and no player is tougher mentally that he is.
You don't win four consecutive majors and the Masters and PGA back-to-back unless you've got nerves of titanium. And every time he adds to his trophy case, he just gets harder to beat. Because whenever he's in a situation like yesterday, he can tell himself, "I've been in the final group before, and I know what it takes. I've handled the emotions." Most of his opponents don't have that sense of well-being.
"I think the thing about Tiger," Mickelson said, "is that he's the only leader that you don't have the hope that he'll falter."
So Mickelson spends the afternoon firing at pin after pin making some birdies, negating them with some bogeys and Els and Singh crash and burn trying to mount a late charge. A year ago, it was Mickelson and David Duval who faltered down the stretch here, Duval in particular missing some very makeable putts. If players like that can't stand up to Woods at Augusta, who can?
Duval, who has had several shots at a green jacket (finishing second, sixth, third and second the previous four years), didn't even make the cut this time. And Mickelson now has three thirds in the Masters, three other top sevens and nothing but some nice crystal to show for it. Rather than inching closer to the Champions Dinner, they seem to be ever-ripening candidates for the Almost Champions Club, that distinguished but eternally frustrated group that includes Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf. Yes, there have been players who were bridesmaids in the Masters a couple of times before finally winning the thing. But the last one was Ben Hogan (runner-up in '42 and '46) over 50 years ago.
If we're looking for someone who might give Tiger a go here and elsewhere perhaps we should run our finger farther down the list of finishers, past all the familiar names, to someone like 21-year-old Aussie Adam Scott. Scott, in his first appearance at Augusta, had four birdies on the back yesterday to grab a share of ninth at 3-under. Better yet, he played the course ably all four days; he was one of just five golfers to shoot four rounds of par or better. Mickelson didn't do that when he was 21. Neither did Garcia or Olazabal. Duval didn't even get an invite until he was 24.
Scott's development and he's coming fast is something to look forward to. As for the others, their window of opportunity in the Tiger Invitational has all but slammed shut on their fingers.

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