The new era of Tiger: Nothing seems to come easily

Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga.— All the images paint a picture of Tiger Woods returning to the pinnacle of golf.

A shot that ranks among the most amazing ever at Augusta National. The intense face bursting with raw emotion when the winning putt dropped on the 18th hole. His fist punching the air with an uppercut, his roar drowned out by a delirious gallery. The red shirt beneath a green jacket.

Woods won the Masters for the fourth time and returned to No. 1 in the world Monday.

CBS Sports said the overnight television rating was 10.3, up 41 percent from last year and the highest for a final round at the Masters since Woods won in 2001 to become the first player to sweep all four majors.

The victory Sunday at Augusta National put him back on track to go after Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors.

Woods now has nine majors, tied with Ben Hogan and Gary Player, and he is still only 29.

But there was something different about this victory.

Woods no longer looked invincible with a final-round lead in a major, spitting up three shots on the final nine holes.

No one feared him, least of all Chris DiMarco, who outplayed Woods in every aspect of the game except when it mattered— with a putter in his hand.

Having gone nearly three years without a major while retooling his swing, it appears that this might be the start of a new era for Woods. If that's the case, it might be different in one area.

Nothing seems to come easily.

Woods won for the third time this year, and none of the finishes were particularly inspiring.

He had a one-shot lead in the Buick Invitational and went for the par-5 18th green in two over the water. But he missed a 2-iron so badly that it came up 20 yards short, and only stayed dry because it landed so far to the right.

Woods pulled ahead of Phil Mickelson in the Ford Championship at Doral with a dramatic birdie on the 17th hole.

But with a chance to put him away on the 18th, Woods missed the green and had to scramble for par.

And he had a two-shot lead over DiMarco until making bogeys on the last two holes.

The old Tiger would not have given his opponents any hope.

The new Tiger keeps everyone guessing to the end.

Ultimately, all that mattered to Woods was slipping into his size 43 Long green jacket for the fourth time, joining Nicklaus (six) and Arnold Palmer (four) as the only players who have won the Masters at least four times.

And despite the shaky finish, the lasting image of Woods is that he always manages to get it done.

''At least I didn't lose it on the last hole,'' Woods said. ''I got into a playoff, and then I hit two of the best golf shots I had hit all week.''

One of them was a 3-wood that he crushed down the middle. The other was a towering 8-iron that covered the flag and dropped 15 feet behind it. The birdie putt was good all the way, and Woods began his celebration when the ball was still a foot from the cup.

Woods is beatable, but his record is now 9-0 with a 54-hole lead in the majors.

''I went out and shot 68 around here on Sunday, which is a very good round,'' DiMarco said. ''And 12 under is usually good enough to win. I just was playing against Tiger Woods.''

Woods now has won the Masters with three swings— a powerful swing he brought to the PGA Tour in 1996, a refined swing crafted with Butch Harmon that took Woods to a sweep of the majors, and a new swing philosophy taught by Hank Haney that remains a work in progress.

Woods has been criticized by some and scrutinized by most for changing a swing that brought him nine victories in 2000 and left him miles ahead of any challengers. Woods spoke more of validation than vindication Sunday evening.

''Hank and I have put some serious hours into this,'' Woods said. ''I read some of the articles over the past year of him getting ripped, I'm getting ripped for all the changes I'm making. And to play as beautifully as I did this entire week is pretty cool.''

Woods will not play for three weeks, returning to the Wachovia Championship the first week in May. The next major test comes June 16-19 in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where Woods tied for third in 1999. A month later comes the British Open at St. Andrews, where he completed the career Grand Slam in 2000 with an eight-shot victory.

The PGA Championship in August is at Baltusrol, and the PGA of America on Monday promoted its major by noting that Woods has never played in New Jersey, and tickets are going fast.

He brings an aura like no other player, and his victory at the Masters can only help the PGA Tour as it prepares to negotiate a new four-year television contract later this year.

But where Woods goes from here remains to be seen.

He was asked that if three victories this year, and his first major since 2002, meant he had arrived again.

''I don't think you're ever there,'' Woods. ''You never arrived. If you do, you might as well quit, because you're already there; can't get any better. I'll never be there.''

The last time Woods led a major with a retooled swing was in 1999, when he nearly blew a five-shot lead in the final round at the PGA Championship before making a clutch par on the 17th and holding off Sergio Garcia.

Turns out that was the start of seven major victories in 11 chances, the most dominant stretch ever.

Maybe that's what awaits Woods. And that's what it will take bring back that aura of invincibility, which was mysteriously missing at the Masters.



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