AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The 4-foot par putt curled out the cup, and the 17-year-old phenom knew he was in trouble.
Two holes down. Two holes to play. His chance to make history with a third straight victory in the most important golf tournament of the year was slipping away.
Tiger Woods showed early in his career that he doesn't let opportunity pass that easily. He birdied the next two holes, making a 10-footer on the 18th, and defeated Ryan Armour on the first extra hole to win the 1993 U.S. Junior Amateur.
''He has always been able to put on his best effort when he has to,'' his father, Earl Woods, said. ''He can marshal his focus down to a razor-sharp edge and perform at the highest level. That's the only way to account for those three wins.''
It was only the start of Woods' amazing string of trifectas.
He became the only golfer to win three straight U.S. Amateurs.
As a professional, he is the only player to win three PGA Tour events (Bay Hill, Memorial, NEC Invitational) three years in a row.
Next up: Augusta National.
No one has ever won the Masters three straight years. Only two other players -- Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) -- even had a chance.
Woods knows what's at stake.
''It means you've accomplished something that none of the greats have ever done,'' Woods said. ''It's important to me to win that one.''
Woods already has made his share of history at Augusta National.
Two years ago, he played bogey-free down the stretch to hold off David Duval and Phil Mickelson, making him the first player to win four straight professional majors.
Last year was easier. He took a lead going into the back nine and let some of the world's best players collapse -- Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia.
Why should this year be any different?
''The hardest thing is to win once,'' Nicklaus said. ''It's easier to win twice. It's got to be easier to win three times.''
It figures to be easier for Woods than the guys chasing him. Only one of the top 30 players in the world ranking -- Singh (2000) -- has won a green jacket.
''That's a pretty powerful statement to say to yourself as you're coming down the stretch -- that you've done it here before,'' Woods said. ''It gives you a sense of calmness.''
That didn't help Nicklaus, although the circumstances were different.
He was the first player to win consecutive Masters, and the media hype was not nearly as great when the Golden Bear arrived at Augusta National in 1967.
''Nobody was worried about me winning three,'' Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus opened with a 72, five strokes behind Bert Yancey, then followed with a 79 to miss the cut by one shot. He didn't miss another cut at the Masters for 27 years.
Nicklaus finds it hard to imagine Woods at home on the weekend, or anywhere else except in contention on the back nine Sunday. Augusta National is longer and tougher than ever, playing right into Woods' hands.
''He does not have to play his best to win,'' Nicklaus said. ''I didn't have to play my best to win, either. I thought if I played decent golf, I was going to be hard to beat. If I played well, I didn't think I would get beat. I would think he feels the same way.''
Faldo used to believe that about himself, but not in 1991.
He opened with 72-73 to make the cut by two shots, but he trailed the leader by nine. Faldo played hard on the weekend to tie for 12th, five strokes behind Ian Woosnam.
What awaits Woods?
''He's a different animal,'' Faldo said. ''He's taken all three areas -- the technical, physical and mental -- to a new level. He has really committed himself to be better in those areas than anyone has ever been.''
Faldo is only a fan to a point.
Asked if he would like to see Woods make more history at the Masters, he furrowed his brow and shook his head.
''I want to keep one of my records,'' Faldo said. ''I want it to be me, Jack and Tiger all tied with two in a row. That's good company.''
There are signs that this Masters could be the toughest for Woods.
A year after the PGA Tour was dominated by first-time winners, there has been a resurgence from tested winners. Els and Davis Love III have won twice, and Love is coming off a flawless 64 to win The Players Championship.
Augusta National, in its first year with the extra length, played particularly long last year because of the rain. A dry, firm course could bring more players into the mix.
As for the hype of chasing history, that hasn't seemed to bother Woods in the past.
He won by eight strokes at St. Andrews to become the youngest player (24) to win the Grand Slam. He won the 2001 Masters with a chance -- maybe his only chance -- to hold all four major trophies at once.
''I've never had a problem with that,'' Woods said. ''That's what has always come easy for me, to focus on the present. I think about winning the event.''
Woods already has won three times this year in five starts. The last time he was this big of a favorite was in 2000 -- when he also had three wins before Augusta. Two swings led to a double bogey and a triple bogey, and Woods never recovered.
His father offers only one guarantee:
''One thing about Tiger, he thoroughly enjoys the stage because he loves the pressure. He knows he can perform under pressure.''
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