- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson made an interesting observation before helping Tiger Woods slip into golf's most coveted coat yesterday.
"I think we might wear this green jacket out putting it on you before your career is over," Johnson said.
Of course, Johnson had just watched the 26-year-old Woods claim his third Masters title and become just the third back-to-back champion in the event's history. But he also had joined the rest of us in watching the absolutely pitiful performances of Tiger's primary challengers. And if yesterday's final-round resistance, or the lack thereof, is any indication of things to come, Woods just might wear out a few size 44 longs in the coming years. Because the most remarkable thing about the 66th Masters wasn't what Woods was able to do by winning at 12 under with a final-round 71, it was what his competition failed to do which was put any significant pressure on the world's top player.
Entering yesterday's finale, it looked as if Woods would have his hands full. Rarely has a leader board at a major featured a more star-studded cast. With five of the top six players behind Woods in the world rankings (Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia) arrayed on the board around him, the world expected a showdown. What we watched was closer to complete capitulation.
Retief Goosen, who entered the round tied with Woods at 11-under, came to the Masters as the hottest player on the planet. With seven worldwide victories dating back to his major breakthrough at the U.S. Open last year, Goosen looked to have the game and the constitution to contend with Tiger. But Goosen obviously left his normally brilliant putting stroke in the trunk yesterday morning, three-putting three of the first eight holes en route to a front-nine 39 that doomed his chances. When Woods walked off the sixth green after a chip-in birdie vaulted him to 13-under, he held a three-stroke lead on the field and Goosen already had raised the white flag.
"I deflated myself out there the first few holes, hitting three three-putts," Goosen said. "That put me a little bit down. From the [sixth hole] on, I think no one really was putting any pressure on Tiger. I think he was just cruising in. He wasn't taking any chances. He was just hitting to the safe sides on every hole. He didn't have to do anything on the back nine but par in."
But Goosen was far from the only culprit. The average score of the five aforementioned players who started the day either tied with or within four shots of Woods was 73.8. With enemies like that, who needs friends? That's not the kind of golf you expect from five of the top seven players in the world on Masters Sunday; it's the kind of golf you expect from five of the top seven players at Muni National in the Saturday dogfight.
"Today, I thought I was very lucky to be able to play the final round of the Masters here at Augusta, play the back nine and be on the leader board and play this game for a living and be very fortunate," said Mickelson, who started four back of Woods at 7-under, carded a water-treading 71 and then expressed his just-happy-to-be-here sentiments afterward. "I thought some people made a charge at Tiger on the front nine. But it's very difficult to shoot 5- or 6-under par on this golf course."
Heck, 2 or 3 under from any of the five would-be challengers would have made things interesting.
Of course, Mickelson didn't dissolve in gruesome fashion like Singh or Els, who began the day trailing Woods and Goosen by two shots and four shots, respectively. Both Singh and Els hung around in striking distance until the back nine before drowning themselves on the par-5s.
Els, who has a pair of U.S. Open victories on his resume, tried to hit the 13th green in two from dreadful position, deposited a pair of balls in the creek and walked away with a triple-bogey that sent him reeling to 6-under.
Singh, who also has two majors (including a green jacket) to his credit, duplicated the tragicomedy at No. 15, spinning two pitches back into the pond en route to a quadruple-bogey that reduced him to 4-under.
"That was the end of that," Singh said after a 76 left him in seventh place and muttering about mud balls. "I'll be back again next year."
And then there was Garcia, the 22-year-old Spaniard who started the day four back at 7-under but made just two birdies thanks to a balky short stick.
"I played hard all week; it just wasn't meant to be," Garcia said after a closing 75. "I am obviously disappointed that my last round was my worst."
And quite frankly, even Woods was probably disappointed that all of his challengers saved their worst rounds for last. Nobody relishes the intensity of a back-nine battle on a major Sunday more than Woods. But yesterday, he was reduced to playing conservatively, protecting a lead that nobody really threatened to take away.
"I just tried to stay as patient as possible and stay away from big mistakes," said Woods, who regularly throttled back with his comfy lead, which was never less than three strokes after the sixth hole. "I wasn't trying to do anything heroic at all."
Woods took the water out of play on No. 11, laid up on Nos. 13 and 15 and basically played a final round that was long on smarts and very short on fireworks. He overwhelmed bogeys at Nos. 5, 11 and 17 with four birdies, with the field pressing to catch him and floundering accordingly.
"The thing about Tiger is that he's the only leader that you don't have the hope that he'll falter," said Mickelson, explaining the mindset that led the challengers to implode. "When other guys are up there, you know that if you can just stay around, there's a good chance they might come back two or three shots. But Tiger doesn't ever seem to do that. So with that being the case, you know you have to go after him and make birdies, which is why I think we saw guys making aggressive plays and making big numbers out there today."
Rarely have so many good players made so many big numbers on such an important day. And after watching the field fizzle around him yesterday, Woods is already salivating over the rest of the season's majors and a potential Grand Slam.
"Well, I've done four majors in a row before," said Woods, who now ranks tied for sixth all-time with seven major titles. "But it would be nice to do four in a row in the same year."
And it would be equally nice to see somebody with the guts and game to stop him.

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