- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 8, 2007


Tiger Woods set out yesterday to save the Masters from itself. OK, so maybe that wasn’t the only thing on his mind. There was also a rumor he was going for his third straight major championship. But, hey, that’s almost old hat now. Phil Mickelson nearly did it a year ago, and Woods himself won four in a row in 2000-01.

No, rescuing the world’s favorite tournament from the excesses of the Greencoats was unquestionably priority No. 1 when Tiger teed off, with Paul Casey in tow, at 1:20. Actually, let me rephrase that. Have it read instead: “from the excesses of the well-meaning Greencoats.”

Make no mistake, whatever miscalculations Augusta National’s members might have made in their occasional tweaking of the course were made with the intention of retaining its dignity, protecting it from the godless onslaught of technology. Nothing is more fun than a Masters shootout, but when Woods plays the last 63 holes of the ‘97 tournament in 22 under, well, this is Augusta, not Las Vegas.

So the Greencoats can be excused if they overdid it a bit by growing some rough, adding about 500 yards of length and taking a few other diabolical measures. We’re not, after all, talking about the USGA. They genuinely like golfers here, like to see them do well; they aren’t trying to embarrass them with 20-yard-wide fairways and burned out, tabletop greens.

Rest assured Augusta National’s over-correction will be corrected soon enough. Tees will be moved up, pin placements will be less severe the club might even put Mother Nature on the payroll to make sure the weather stays in line. Forty-degree temperatures and flag-flapping wind aren’t what you’d call ideal scoring conditions.

But back to Woods. When he played the front nine in 2-under yesterday and rocketed up the leader board, he restored a pulse to the Masters. Until then, it had been a dreary exercise in damage control, a tournament with far too much discretion and not nearly enough valor.

Imagine: Angel Cabrera made the cut despite birdying just one hole. Has that ever happened before in post-gutta-percha, post-hickory-shaft era?

Imagine, Part 2: “Wind chill” actually entered into the equation in Round 3 as if competition had been moved to Lambeau Field. It was 36 degrees at noon, 42 at 7 p.m. when play was winding down.

But it looked like Woods was going to make that all go away. In fact, when he pulled into a tie for second after the 11th hole, a mere two strokes behind Stuart Appleby, you could practically hear Augusta National president Billy Payne say, “What was that jacket size again, Tiger a 42-long?”

This is a Masters, however, unlike any other in recent memory. Tiger had hiccups at 17 and 18 to fall back to plus-three, and then the leaders returned the favor while he was defrosting in the clubhouse. Appleby triple-bogeyed 17 and wound up at 2 over. Justin Rose bogeyed 16 and 17 to finish at 3-over. Vaughn Taylor bogeyed his way from the 16th hole to the 19th hole and ended up at 4 over. Lo and behold, Tiger had sneaked into the last group today, which is exactly where he wants to be.

It’s scary, though, that the best player of all time has now made three trips around the course and has yet to break par (73-74-72 is Woods’ linescore). But no scarier, apparently, than the course itself. Because of the wind gusts, Tiger said, “You hit quality shots and just get absolutely hosed.”

That’s what befell him at 18. The wind turned around while his 8-iron approach shot was in the air and kept it from reaching the green. Alas, the pin was at the back of the putting surface, and he couldn’t get up and down. But that’s all right, he said, “I’m only four back.”

A short time later, of course, he was only one back.

The biggest concern for Woods right now bigger than Appleby or Paddy Harrington (4 over) or any actual competitor might be the way he’s been playing the last two holes. He bogeyed them in the final round in 2005, necessitating a playoff with Chris DiMarco (which he won), bogeyed them again in the first round this year and bogeyed them again yesterday. That could weigh on him if he’s trying to hang onto a lead early this evening. Tiger has always been a great finisher, but have any closing holes ever given him more trouble than these two?

Woods can still save this Masters. If he wins his fifth green jacket and third consecutive major who’s going to remember many of the details? But it’s not the done deal so many of his victories have been. As Appleby says, “There’s an element of guessing here.”

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