- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Maybe we should stop trying to understand Tiger Woods. His thought processes are obviously so much different from ours, even from his fellow golfers. Who but Tiger could shoot 18 under in the Masters and then decide his swing needed major modifications? Who but Tiger could be cruising along six years later, winning one out of every three events he teed it up in, only to decide his mechanics required another makeover?

Woods isn’t like the rest of humanity. We’ve known that since he showed off his putting prowess on the “Mike Douglas Show” at the age of 2. His mountaintop is not our mountaintop. No, his mountaintop is up beyond the clouds, where vision ends and imagination begins.

Yesterday at Augusta National he began his third incarnation. The first was Phenom Tiger, the kid who dropped out of Stanford at 20 and bypassed Qualifying School by winning the fifth tournament he entered. Then came Insatiable Tiger, the voracious victory hound who racked up seven major titles in four years. And now, with the donning of his fourth green jacket, we have … what? You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet Tiger?

What Woods did in the second and third rounds of the Masters, exhuming himself from a 74 start, was remarkable even by his own otherworldly standards. He played a stretch of 30 holes in 15 under, reeling off seven straight birdies at one point to make up seven strokes on Chris DiMarco. Augusta National had never witnessed a run like that — not from Jack Nicklaus, not from Arnie Palmer, not even from Tiger himself.

And this was on a course that been lengthened and narrowed and generally had its fangs sharpened in recent years — all to prevent players from doing exactly what Woods did. But because the normal rules of athletic limits don’t apply to him, Tiger went out and did it anyway.

That’s what’s been missing from golf while his swing has been in the shop: Tiger’s ability to amaze. In his earlier lives, he performed feats that strained plausibility — the green jacket at 21, the Tiger Slam, the 12-shot victory in the U.S. Open, the 17 tour wins in two years. Vijay Singh’s 2004 was superb, and Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson have also had their moments, but none of them has Woods’ Jaw-Drop Factor. Heck, how many golfers in history have, other than Nicklaus and Bobby Jones?

What Tiger brings to the sport — when he’s totally on his game, that is — is an astronaut’s sense of adventure. He takes us to places we’ve never been, does things that wouldn’t be conceivable if he didn’t do them. Would Singh have won nine events last year if Woods hadn’t done it four years earlier? I tend to doubt it (even given Vijay’s maniacal drive).

But Tiger hasn’t just raised everybody’s level of play — lest they spend the rest of their careers eating his dust — he’s planted possibilities in their minds they didn’t know existed. Which might explain Chris DiMarco’s dogged persistence in the final round yesterday. After all, if pedestrian players like Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel and Todd Hamilton could win majors the last couple of years, while Tiger’s swing was undergoing renovations, why couldn’t it be his turn?

And wonder of wonders, it nearly was. Woods pulled almost every Tiger Trick in the book, hitting DiMarco with a left-right combination right out the box by birdieing the first two holes. Then on 16, after his lead had dwindled from four shots to one, he holed a wedge from just off the green that hung on the lip for a full three seconds before the rotation of the earth — or was it providence? — caused it to drop in the cup.

“I just threw the ball up on the hill and let it feed down there so I’d hopefully have a makable [par] putt,” Woods said. “Under the circumstances, it was one of the best shots I ever hit because if I bogey there and Chris birdies, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

DiMarco, to his credit, kept hanging in. That was his best hope: That Woods couldn’t keep playing out of his mind forever, that his game was back, but maybe not all the way back. Sure enough, Tiger nearly blew the tournament on 17 and 18, hitting a wayward teeball on the first and a loose approach on the second to send the twosome to a playoff tied at 12 under.

DiMarco could take almost as much pride in that as he could in a victory. “Anytime you can make him hiccup a little bit,” he said, “you know you’re doing something right. … I actually had to feel better going into the playoff than he did.”

But this is Tiger Woods we’re talking about, the Man of 1,000 Thrills. As quickly as he fell apart, he pulled himself back together. His three-wood off the 18th tee in OT was dead solid perfect. His 8-iron into the green was, in his words, “flushed.” And his 15-foot putt for the win was, well, whattayathink? Nothing but net.

The win, Woods agreed, was “validation of all the hard work I’ve put into [overhauling his swing].” But when asked whether his game, after two years of tinkering, was “finally there,” he gave the kind of answer that only Tiger Woods would give, the kind of answer that explains why he’s the golfer he is.

“I don’t think you’re ever ‘there,’” he said. “You never arrive. If you do, you should quit, because [presumably] you’re never going to get better. No, I’ll never be ‘there.’”

So let’s enjoy Tiger 3.0 — and assume we’ll be seeing the 4.0 and 5.0 versions somewhere down the line. Clearly, the guy can’t help himself. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. …

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