His next challenger is just learing on a putt-putt somewhere

Posted: Monday, April 15, 2002

Some see the red shirt and melt before the first shot is struck.

Others last until an early barrage of birdies makes them start gambling like tourists waiting on a flight home from Las Vegas.

One even snapped at his heels like a terrier for all 18 holes of regulation, only to find out in a playoff what all the rest of Tiger Woods' victims already knew: The longer the golf goes, the tougher he gets.

So maybe the question isn't why Retief Goosen didn't stand up to Woods, but whether anybody ever will on the final day of a major.

''After the front nine, I knew it was all over for me,'' said Goosen, the runner-up. ''I just tried really hard for second.''

Added Phil Mickelson, who finished third: ''The thing about Tiger is, he's the only leader that you don't have any hope he'll falter. The other guys, there's a good chance they'll come back two or three shots. That's why you saw a lot of guys making aggressive plays, taking a lot of bogeys and doubles because of it.''

Judging by the way the usual suspects peeled away at this Masters, the golfer who will step forward to accept the gantlet that Woods has thrown down is still young enough to be honing his stroke on a putt-putt course somewhere.

Sunday marked the seventh time in as many tries that Woods went out with at least a share of the lead in one of the game's big four tournaments and came home in sole possession of the trophy. Even when you factor in playing partner Goosen, who is the defending U.S. Open champion, the list of players Woods has left in his dust hardly reads like a golfing version of Murderer's Row.

But it's not lacking in real quality, either.

Woods' third green jacket is his seventh major title, which ties him with Masters' co-founder Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Arnold Palmer, who played his final competitive round this year in the tournament he helped popularize.

Though five names remain ahead of his, the one Woods has focused on is Jack Nicklaus, who tops the list with 18 major wins.

''Give him a couple more years,'' Goosen said, ''and I think Tiger will be even greater than Jack Nicklaus.''

Maybe so, but whether Woods' rivals will ever measure up to the ones Nicklaus faced seems unlikely. Besides Palmer, the Golden Bear regularly bumped heads with Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Raymond Floyd. The names Woods has brushed aside en route to his major championship wins hardly match that illustrious gathering.

The first was Italian Costantino Rocca in the 1997 Masters. The second was Canadian Mike Weir in the 1999 PGA Championship. In one fell swoop during 2000, he brushed aside Ernie Els at the U.S. Open, David Duval at the British and pesky Bob May, after a playoff, in the PGA.

Taking Goosen's place at last year's Masters was Mickelson. Woods' final-day scoring average against those seven was 69. They averaged 73.

The 71 Woods posted Sunday was more than good enough. Birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 convinced his closest pursuers to get increasingly reckless. Mickelson got within two strokes after two holes, but never that close again. Els, who finished with a 73, climbed within three on the back, but was done after splashing down in the creek at the 13th and making triple-bogey. Vijay Singh was the last to crumple, finally dunking two balls into the pond and walking off the 15th green after a quadruple-bogey.

Asked what made one golfer after another fold his hand, Els said, ''I can't explain that. I'll just tell you my side of things. I got greedy. I told myself before this tournament started, 'Don't go left on 13, like the previous year.' I didn't listen to myself. I guess the way he plays just gets to you.''

Woods said only that he was ''kind of surprised'' to see the wrecks pile up on every side of him.

The truth is he's tougher, smarter, meaner, more talented, more competitive, better at handling pressure and he works harder than everybody else out here. It's not hard to see why the competition always cracks -- no matter how many times Woods pretends it's still a mystery to him.

''I don't know,'' he said one last time Sunday, ''you've got to ask them.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org

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