April 10, 2006

Around 4 PM EDT yesterday, it looked as if the finish to the 70th Masters would be one for the ages. After all, not only did a marquee mano-a-mano down-the-stretch duel between crowd-pleasers Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples appear likely, the first page of the leaderboard included a fine mix of relative unknowns like Tim Clark and Angel Miguel Jiminez, grizzled tour veterans like Rocco Mediate, and reliable past Masters like Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, and Jose Maria Olazabal.

As history began to play itself out, however, the back nine at Augusta began to (in the words of CBS color commentator Lanny Wadkins – who, by the way, gets better every year) play the role of shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Approach shots dialed in the previous days strayed from their appointed targets, and putts earlier drained with confidence now slid by helplessly – with them, chances at golf immortality. Rocco miraculously transformed into The Great White Shank and made an amzing 7-over 10 on the par-3 12th. The increasingly-clueless Sergio Garcia battled classy Ben Crenshaw for last place (he missed by one stroke), and Ben Crane whined about how small the Augusta greens were. (Earth to Ben: Dude, that’s how real golf courses were originally designed. If you want to spend your life playing resort courses, get yourself a real job and try hanging out with the Goodboys.)

In the end, it was left for Phil to take advantage of a strangely erratic – if not pathetic – putting performance by Tiger and cruise home to victory. As Kevin Holtsberry so ably sums it up in today’s National Review Online:

“Lefty” answered that question with a resounding yes. He played absolutely flawless golf, going bogey-free until the last hole (when it no longer mattered). Nothing was forced — he waited for his moments and made clutch putt after clutch putt. After he birdied 7 and 8, regaining the lead, he never looked back. With birdies on the two par fives on the back nine, he suddenly held a four-shot advantage. It was almost boring he was so smooth.

No one seemed able to challenge him — although two-time Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal made a magnificent run. After an eagle on the 15th, it looked as if he would post a serious number; then he’d have to wait and see what those behind him could do. But a bogey on 16 drained his momentum. He posted a 66 — the low round of the tournament — but that ended up being good enough only for a tie for third.

A disappointed Tiger Woods can only think about what might have been. He was hitting the ball very well, but looked lost on the greens with seven three putts in the tournament. Sunday was no different. After bogies on 6 and 11, it looked like he’d be limping home. But Tiger being Tiger, he gave it one last run. He had legitimate eagle opportunities on 13 and 15, but missed them both. When his eagle putt lipped out on 13, his pain and frustration was visible. No doubt he badly wanted to win this one for his ailing father, and those eagle putts represented his best chance. Instead of putting pressure on Mickelson, Tiger felt the tournament slip away.

Thus, Mickelson became the latest to take advantage of a curious statistical hole in Tiger’s otherwise-impeccable professional career (the AP’s Tim Dahlberg has more on that here): the fact that, trailing after 54 holes, Tiger has never come back to finish first at a major tournament.

Something else I noticed about Tiger’s performance yesterday that did not paint him in a good light at all.

First of all, he was obviously pi$$ed at having to put that green jacket he so obviously coveted on Phil at the Butler Cabin. OK, as tenacious a competitor as Tiger is, one can understand his feelings and might – MIGHT – be willing to grant him a mulligan for that. However, later on, at the official green jacket awards ceremony outside, where Phil so graciously and genuinely asked the gathering’s thoughts and prayers for Tiger’s ailing father, Tiger’s response was to remain grim-faced and emotionless, with nary a nod of thanks or recognition to be found. Even after Phil sat down next to him, it took Phil patting Tiger on the leg to get ANY kind of response from him at all: even then, as Tiger responded in kind, it seemed awkward, and to me, chilly. Look, I know Tiger’s desire for privacy when it comes to himself and his family is legendary, but heck, when someone – even if he’s someone you’ve not historically been close to – extends a classy gesture in your direction, true champions in life respond in kind. I’ve always respected Tiger for his ability as a golfer, but my regard for him as a human being dropped a few pegs after yesterday.

All in all, it was a great Masters weekend, and congrats go out to Phil – he definitely finds himself on a plateau few thought only two years ago he had in him. If Sergio is paying any kind of attention, he might think about employing a similar kind of strategy to get that 700-lb monkey called “best player to have never won a major” off his back. It may take a lot of hard work, discipline, and a change in approach, but Lefty has proven it can be done, and he is now reaping those wonderful rewards that only exceeded expectations and realized talent can bring.

Filed in: Golf & Sports by The Great White Shank at 16:22 | Comments Off on Masterful Lefty
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