- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods once again is golf’s goliath.

Courtesy of a 15-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a playoff against gritty veteran Chris DiMarco, Woods shrugged off a victory drought spanning 10 majors yesterday at the 69th Masters and slipped into his fourth green jacket.

“This one’s for you, Pop,” said the 29-year-old Woods, breaking down emotionally while dedicating his ninth major victory to his ailing father and mentor, Earl, who has battled heart problems for several years.

“He made the trek to Augusta, but he just wasn’t feeling well enough to come out and enjoy himself,” Woods said. “He’s just hanging on. Every time I’ve been fortunate enough to win here, he’s always been right there to give me a hug. And he wasn’t there today. … I can’t wait to get home and give him a big bear hug.”

The victory puts Woods two majors ahead of Jack Nicklaus’ pace in his quest to top the Golden Bear’s record of 18 major conquests. Through the Masters at 29, Nicklaus had just seven major victories.

And Grand Slam murmurs are inevitable given Woods’ ball-striking revival and the sites for the remainder of the season’s major schedule (U.S. Open at Pinehurst, N.C.; British Open at St. Andrews, Scotland; and PGA Championship at Baltusrol, N.J.).

Woods finished tied for third behind Payne Stewart and Phil Mickelson at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst and then vanquished the field by eight strokes the last time the British Open visited the Old Course (2000).

But barring a serious Grand Slam bid, nothing that happens later this season is likely to top yesterday’s happenings at Augusta National in the drama department.

Not since PGA Tour journeyman Bob May pushed Woods deep into a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, Ky., has a man met Woods’ challenge at a major like DiMarco.

Woods, who began the final round at 11 under with a three-stroke lead on DiMarco, was a perfect 8-0 at the majors when leading or owning a share of the 54-hole lead. And most of his final-round opponents finished the day with spike marks on their backs and a stake in their souls.

Not DiMarco.

Rebounding from a ghastly morning conclusion to a third-round 74, in which he lost seven strokes to Woods on the back nine, DiMarco gutted his way around the 7,290-yard, par-72 layout in 68 strokes, outdueling the young master over the final 18. And perhaps most amazingly, DiMarco, 36, was able to maintain his composure after Woods executed perhaps the most memorable shot in the game’s storied history on the event’s 70th hole.

When the two walked off the 16th tee with Woods leading by just one at 13 under, DiMarco looked to have an excellent chance to even the affair. Woods had missed the green long and left at the 170-yard, par-3, while DiMarco had an uphill 20-footer for birdie.

But just as he has done throughout his astonishing career, Woods rose to the moment and authored a miracle. Using the treacherous slope on the green as his ally, Woods flipped a pitch about 25 feet past the flag and well left, relying on Augusta designer Bobby Jones’ undulating turf vision to handle the rest.

Woods’ pitch landed, curled and reversed course toward the pin, almost as if cued by some heavenly script. The Nike ball trundled right to the lip of the cup, hesitated for several seconds just to stretch the suspense, and then dropped home for a birdie bolt not even Hollywood could envision.

“That was probably the best shot of my career under the circumstances,” Woods said of the shot that suddenly gave him a two-stroke cushion with two to play. “And it was kind of nice that it went in because I kind of collapsed coming in.”

Uncharacteristically, Woods bogeyed the final two holes to allow DiMarco new life. But the player the world has expected to perform under pressure arrived in time for the playoff, which took place on the 18th hole.

While DiMarco was busy scrambling for a par, Woods hit a 3-wood to the center of the fairway and an 8-iron to 15 feet behind the hole to set up his final masterstroke.

“For some reason, I picked that moment to hit two of the most solid shots I’ve hit all week,” Woods said. “And I never had any doubt that I was making the putt.”

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