No Taking The Easy Way In

There's no obscuring it: Tiger Woods is the clear favorite in the Masters. But tied for 19th, four shots off the lead, he has some work to do.
There's no obscuring it: Tiger Woods is the clear favorite in the Masters. But tied for 19th, four shots off the lead, he has some work to do. (By David Cannon -- Getty Images)
By Thomas Boswell
Friday, April 11, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga. At 32, in the heart of his prime, Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer ever, better in my book than Jack Nicklaus on his finest day. By a modest margin, perhaps, but an indisputable and measurable one. Woods wins more often, by larger margins and with a more complete game in his era than Nicklaus did in his. When Tiger goes on streaks, his last longer; he clings to that on-a-roll edge more fiercely.

Since the start of the 2007 season, he's won exactly half of the 20 PGA Tour events he's entered. Jack still has the lifetime lead in pro major titles -- 18-13. But wait awhile. Those days are numbered. The Bear may even get lapped.

But let's not pretend Woods has won this Masters, much less the Grand Slam, when the first of the four major events has barely begun. Woods is better than anybody, by a lot, but he's no better than everybody put together. What we're watching here -- Woods vs. the world -- is fabulous drama, a fair fight (93 against one), not a foregone conclusion.

That's why London bookmakers have Woods as an 11-to-8 underdog against the field in this Masters. Such odds, in golf, are an honor bordering on athletic anointment. For contrast, the odds against Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 player on earth, are 10 to 1. Still, let's not deny ourselves the vast enjoyment, and Woods the enormous credit he's due, by acting as if his greatest wins -- even the notion of a "called-shot" Grand Slam this season -- are a near inevitability, an almost drama-less formality.

Perhaps Woods's own words are the problem. On his Web site in February, he used the phrase "easily within reach" to describe his chances of winning the Grand Slam, something nobody has done in the same season since Bobby Jones in 1930. In any other contemporary athlete, such confidence would be rash -- almost a challenge to the gods. But from Woods, who already created his own Tiger Slam in 2000-01, it's viewed within golf as valid analysis and, perhaps, a bit of gamesmanship to which he's earned the right. Nicklaus certainly allowed himself the occasional mind game with the mortals.

Since Tiger threw down his verbal challenge -- with many obsessing on the word "easily" -- the expectation of a Woods rout here has, to some extent, replaced the annual thrill of anticipation that precedes the Masters. That's the magnitude of his mystique. Woods is the real culprit, of course. By winning five straight PGA Tour events, including his first three starts this season, he has created the impression that he is not merely the best but unbeatable. Yet the two are entirely different.

Tiger may win this Masters. But, if he does, it'll probably be in a hold-on-to-your-hats thriller, not a boring weekend walk in the pines. Especially after his first-round even-par 72, which put him in a 14-way tie for 19th place. Woods is snugly in striking distance, yet struggled a bit all day as various parts of his game showed hints of a wobble here, intimations of a bobble there.

Because some of you may be heading for the door, muttering, "Give it a rest. Tiger owns 'em," let one fact be noted. As a professional, when Woods shoots 72 or higher on Thursday, he's only won one of seven Masters. When he shoots under par, he's won three of four. As he starts, so he finishes. Well, usually. Except in '05 when he opened with a 74, then knocked the field unconscious with a 66-65 combo and waltzed home Sunday.

Because he's Tiger, Woods may have this thing in his pocket Saturday night. But after finishing fifth at Doral three weeks ago, with scads of lip-outs, he may have to battle the only thing that ever really beats him -- the infernal devil's game itself. On Thursday, Woods hit three drives off trees and hooked another far left. He babied a short chip shot that rolled right back at him. Another delicate chip from 50 feet barely made the green by an inch, squandering a birdie. A basic approach shot landed 20 yards short of the green as the crowd gasped. In his entire round, Woods did not make a single birdie.

Of course, and this is why every current player shivers at his name, Tiger responded to back-to-back bogies at the 13th and 14th holes by chipping for an eagle at the 15th hole to get back to even par. Crisp strike, sharp check up and into the hole on the last roll. Every player will watch that shot all night on TV here and think: "He needed to chip in for eagle. So he did."

Still, golf is not so simple, especially from the neck up. In his heyday, Nicklaus had a mystifying habit, especially at majors, of acting as though a mediocre round, full of flubs and flaws, had simply not happened. Played well, he'd say, just didn't make any putts. Reporters shook their heads. What they'd seen was not what Nicklaus chose to internalize. Or announce to the field. If Jack felt himself losing a bit of form, why acknowledge it? "Self-perpetuating propaganda," an English writer called it. Tell yourself the screws holding your game together are nice and tight. Maybe it'll be true, at least until Sunday night.

"I thought I played a lot better than my score. I hit a lot of good putts. Nothing really went in," said Woods, who only had one chance at a birdie putt of less than 15 feet. "I kept myself in the tournament. I'm right there. I'm just going to relax. I feel good about how I played all day. I hit the ball really well all day. A lot of good putts just didn't go in."

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