Tiger wins Masters with mental toughness

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Among the 12 major championships won by Tiger Woods -- nine as a professional and three U.S. Amateur titles -- his victory Sunday at the Masters likely ranks somewhere in the lower half in terms of artistic achievements, but it must be among the best on a satisfaction level. After an 0-for-10 drought that extends back to the 2002 U.S. Open, the young man who three years ago seemed like a lock to break Jack Nicklaus' record of 20 overall majors and 18 among the professional Grand Slam events is finally back on track.

And there was something about the way events unfolded in the final round at Augusta National that makes you think this is not the only major Woods will win this year.

The finale was, in fact, a surprisingly suspenseful day -- Woods seemed to put the tournament away early by opening with two birdies to take a four-stroke lead over Chris DiMarco, only to hand the green jacket back to DiMarco by closing with two very un-Tiger-like bogeys. The threads were only on loan, however, as Woods rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole to take his fourth Masters title to go with those three U.S. Amateur trophies, two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and one British Open. With nine professional majors, Woods is now tied with Ben Hogan and Gary Player behind Walter Hagen (11) and Nicklaus (18). The 12 overall major titles put him in third place on that list behind Bobby Jones (13) and Nicklaus (20).

In an event that seems capable of topping itself every year, we all came in here expecting great things from the Big Five -- Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen. What we got, instead, was a gloriously gritty performance by DiMarco, who simply refused to give in to Woods, closing with a 68 to erase a three-stroke deficit going into the final round and forcing the playoff with a great chip on the 72nd hole that hit the cup and almost dropped in for a birdie. Only two of Woods' eight previous professional majors were close -- by one stroke over Sergio Garcia in the 1999 PGA and in a playoff with Bob May in the 2000 PGA -- and only the playoff with May rivaled this Masters on the excitement scale in terms of Tiger victories.

DiMarco deserves as much of the credit for the entertainment value of the day as Woods. DiMarco made only one bogey, rolled in five birdies and left a couple more on the course. He hung in there after Woods' intimidating start and somehow managed to regroup after Woods holed a nearly impossible chip for birdie on No. 16 to take a two-stroke lead with two holes to play. The positive news in all of this for Woods is that he hit a ton a great shots and that he seems to have his distance advantage back over his rivals. The negative news -- the cautionary tale that he is not quite back to total Tigerness yet -- is the wayward tee shots he hit down the stretch that gave DiMarco an opening.

But the real story of this week is the absolute mental toughness Woods displayed in overcoming an opening-round 74 and a first two days of play that included weather delays, putting off a green into water, hitting a flagstick and ending up in a bunker, having a TV viewer try to get him penalized and -- most painfully -- having his cancer-stricken father, Earl, too weak from chemotherapy to come to the golf course. Back when Woods won his first green jacket -- by a record 12 strokes in 1997 -- the tournament ended with Tiger and Earl locked in a tearful hug on the 18th green. This time, Tiger fought back tears alone as he spoke of his absent father.

There are many things that make Tiger Woods a special golfer. He has ball-striking skills few others have possessed and he has strength more like an NFL defensive back than a golfer. But the thing that truly separates him from his peers is his desire. And that is not to say that his rivals lack the fire than burns in Tiger's belly, but rather that Woods rages with a desire few others in any sport have ever known. We heard it time and again on Sunday as his undeleted expletives filled the air. This was important to him.

There may very well be a hidden agenda here that Tiger is not telling us. There is a feeling that this Masters victory was very special because no one knows how many more major championship ceremonies Earl Woods will see. There is also a feeling that Tiger wants to thanks Pop by creating something truly special for him. The next major is the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where Woods played very well in 1999 when Payne Stewart won. The British Open is at St. Andrews, where he won by eight strokes in 2000. And the PGA Championship will be at Baltusrol, which will be set up well for a long hitter.

If there is anything that makes you realize how truly special Woods is, it is the fact that after a nearly three-year stretch without a major it takes only one victory -- and in a playoff at that -- to get people doing the math and wondering how many Woods will win this year. It takes only a burst like Woods had in one stretch when he made 14 birdies in 22 holes to get people wondering if Tiger can sweep all four Grand Slam events in the same calendar year to go with the Tiger Slam he won when he captured the final three majors of 2000 and the 2001 Masters. Wouldn't handing four major championship trophies be a nice get-well gift for Earl? Tiger is tough enough to do it.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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