AUGUSTA, Ga., April 11 -- Much earlier in Tiger Woods's career, Jack Nicklaus predicted that Woods would win more Masters championships than the total of 10 that Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer won between them.
At the age of 29, Woods won his fourth green jacket on Sunday at Augusta National with a 15-foot birdie putt on a playoff hole against veteran Chris DiMarco. Nicklaus had won the fourth of his six Masters titles by the age of 32, winning twice more, including his last at age 46 in 1986 to become the oldest champion in tournament history. Palmer won the last of his four in 1964 at age 34.
Tiger Woods's victory at the Masters was good news for CBS. The network's overnight ratings for coverage of Sunday's final round were a 10.3 with a 21 share. That was up 41 percent from Phil Mickelson's victory last year (7.3 with an 18 share) and the highest since Woods's victory at Augusta in 2001.
Asked on Sunday about Nicklaus's prediction, Woods smiled and said: "I just wondered what he was smoking. I had the length back then, but I didn't have the understanding of my golf swing. It was just mind-boggling for him to make a comment like that."
Woods, now with nine career majors, seems to be approaching a full understanding of where he wants to be with his swing, retooled over the past two years by his latest teacher, Hank Haney, also the longtime instructor for Woods's best friend, Mark O'Meara. Woods and Haney both say the swing is still a work in progress, but getting better all the time, a frightening prospect for all of those now once again trying to catch the No. 1 player in the world.
"I think he's getting there," Haney told the Augusta Chronicle. "I don't think the golf swing is something you just get and have. You keep working at it and keep trying and you keep getting closer and closer. . . . It was the media's perception things weren't working [last year]. But when Tiger was practicing or playing at home, he felt really good about what he was doing, or he wouldn't have stayed with it. He kept saying he was close, and that became a joke. He knew it was coming. He could feel it coming."
Woods felt it was right there Sunday in the sudden-death playoff with the last two shots he hit before making that 15-footer. He crushed a 3-wood off the tee into the fairway, then hit a magnificent 8-iron over the flag that set up his winning putt.
"I was kind of throwing up on the last couple of holes," Woods said of the two bogeys at 17 and 18 in regulation that forced him into a playoff.
Then, "for some reason, I hit two of the best shots I hit all week. . . . I've battled hard the last couple of years to work hard on my game and make some changes. I wasn't winning major championships . . . I wasn't in contention on the back nine of every major like I like to be. It was nice to get back in there again and be in contention with a chance to win coming up the back nine on Sunday. It's a thrill."
For many of his colleagues, Woods's performance Sunday came as no surprise. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, who had a 69 on Sunday to tie for 13th place, said he never had any doubt that Woods would find his way back to the top of a game he dominated from 1999 to 2002, with seven wins in a stretch of 11 majors.
"Now that he's won, the talk will be of how many green jackets he's going to win," Lehman said. "Is he going to win eight, 10? It's a very fickle thing, the perception of the media and the fans. He'd already proven to me when he won at [the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines] this year when he was less than at his best. He's the best competitor out here."
Other top competitors never came close to making a run at either Woods or DiMarco in the final 18 holes. Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh essentially ran in place Sunday morning in the completion of the rain-delayed third round. And Mickelson said he simply lost his concentration on the back nine of the final round.
Last year, he needed only 31 shots to navigate the last nine holes on Sunday. This year, he needed 39, including double bogeys on both par 3s. After his round, Mickelson stayed in the scorer's trailer watching the rest of the tournament unfold.
"This is one tournament I love watching," he said when he finally came out. "It's 100 times more fun playing it, but I still like to watch it, like I've been doing since I was 8 years old."