Masters 2002 Report:
Advice to those competing next year against Tiger Woods on Sunday during the final round of the Masters: Wear a lead-lined golf shirt. In winning his third green jacket and his seventh major title, Woods' white-hot aura, intensity, and consummate course management skills melted down the competition as easily as Superman's x-ray vision reduced an iceberg to a cube. Tiger is now 7-0 in majors where he was either leading or tied for the tournament after 54 holes. Much like Jack Nicklaus of a generation ago, Tiger's genius is his relentless and indomitable winning attitude that crowds out any creeping doubts or mental mistakes.
This was an odd Masters in many aspects, which celebrated the centennial of Augusta National founder Bobby Jones. First, I can't recall where a defending champion, let alone a global sports icon such as Tiger, drew so little attention and comment early in the week from the media. Last year, Tiger was the center of intense media and public scrutiny as he prepared to win his fourth consecutive major. Remember then: Was it or was it not a Grand Slam? By Jones' standard (an amateur/pro one at that) it clearly wasn't since it did not take place in the same calendar year. Still, Tiger raised the bar higher than any other previous modern day golfer in claiming the Masters and holding all of the major trophies at the same time.
So, I guess after last year's drama and excitement, anything would be a letdown. This year, the center of attention prior to Thursday was the golf course itself, the venerated Augusta National Golf Club. Spending millions of dollars for essentially one week out of the year for Tour-caliber players, club officials completed a major renovation and lengthening process to nine of the holes. "Our objective is to keep this course current," Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said. "Beginning in 1934 and throughout their tenure, Clifford Roberts and Bob Jones made improvements to complement the changing state of the game. We have continued this philosophy." In his annual Press conference on Wednesday of tournament week, Johnson elaborated that such changes had been discussed and mulled over even before the 2001 tournament due to the dire effects of increased distance gained by players via improved technology in equipment and balls. As a result, Augusta National's once daunting par-fours were being reduced to drive-and-wedge scenarios.
If course historians are looking for a "tipping point" when Augusta National decided to really fight back against the longer golf ball and equipment, it was last year when Johnson and famed course architect and Masters consultant Tom Fazio were watching Phil Mickelson play the 11th hole. "We saw his drive come down there," recalled Johnson, "and we thought somebody had chipped out of the woods." Johnson then went down under the rope (and only a green jacket could do that!) and discovered that Mickelson was only 94 yards from the green. "I told Tom, 'Heck, man, no questionŠwe should be more aggressive with what we are doing." Hence, the 11th hole was extended by 30-35 yards making it now a 490-yard par four. Augusta National was going to fight back and make the world's best players play through their bag again.
In a telling interview on Tuesday, Jack Nicklaus (who had wisely opted not to compete this year due to physical problems) complimented Johnson and Fazio for the changes to the course. Long a proponent of a "slower" and official Tour golf ball, Nicklaus expounded on the pickle that Masters was in over the distance, course design and golf ball donnybrook. "I think Augusta could have done that (an official Masters golf ball) but I don't think they wanted to get in the middle of that controversy," said the six-time Masters champion. "I think it's the politically right thing for them to do. They know they can get ahead of the curve the other way (via lengthening) and they did it." However, Nicklaus did urge the USGA and R &A to develop a "set of specs" to be delivered to the ball manufacturers so as to come up with a tournament golf ball.
Besides the course changes, this Masters will also be remembered for Arnold Palmer and the weather. Playing in his 48th Masters, Palmer announced that this would be his final competitive tour around "Amen Corner." As if to honor the four-time, charismatic Masters champion, the golf gods even kindly bestowed some bonus Saturday golf to "The King" as heavy rains fell and postponed the conclusion of Friday's round. "I was very excited because I hadn't played on Saturday in a long time," Palmer quipped. Yes, The King had "abdicated his throne," as golf writer Jack Saylor aptly noted in his Friday column, but he'll always be loved by his loyal subjects.
As far as the weather, waterlogged conditions transformed the course into a different test and challenge than found earlier in the week when it was fast and firm and edgy. Until Sunday's round when the greens finally dried out, the course played -- relative to the course changes -- easier than expected. That was due to the fact that Augusta's usual fierce, icy greens and pin placements were tempered by the rains. Players were flying shots at the flags and not spinning or bouncing them 30-40 feet away as they normally would. And the added new length was compensated, due to the soggy fairways, by tee markers being moved up on many holes.
So lost in all of these discussions and diversions was the defending champion, Tiger Woods. Remember him? Well, he opened with a ho-hum 2-under par 70 on the first day. Then the rains came on Friday and Tiger had only completed ten holes of play. He was faced with the daunting task of playing 26 holes of major championship play on Saturday. This is when Tiger Woods started to melt down the competition with his enormous mental and physical gifts. "That was a long day," said Tiger. "I was here at the golf course just before 7:00AM and I didn't walk off until 7:30PM so I was here for 13 hours. That's a long time to be on your feet and playing and be under this type of pressure."
But Tiger not only survives major championship pressure he thrives on it, energizing himself while paralyzing his opponents. A most revealing moment about the Tiger's fearless competitive spirit occurred when he hit his iron shot to his 54th hole and 18th green during Saturday's grueling day. Seeing the soaring shot seek out the flag, Tiger's caddie Steve Williams yelled after it, "Get in the final group!" Translation: Get tight to the pin so Tiger can make birdie and join Retief Goosen in the final pairing on Sunday. And that he did, finishing up with a 6-under par 66.
On Sunday, after a faltering start by co-leader Goosen, Tiger found himself in the lead and where his skill as the ultimate closer remained unshakeable. With the possible exception of Nicklaus, no modern golfer has excelled in the final round with the lead as had Tiger. And even Nicklaus concedes that Tiger not only defeats his opponents, he demolishes them by never relenting and by never merely protecting a lead. "You're always trying to build," said Tiger on Sunday night.
So as the 2002 Masters recedes from memory, two thoughts still linger. One is that the Masters is still a magical, wonderful and majestic tournament, one where excellence and constant improvements are always the subject of a quest. Hootie Johnson quoted Clifford Roberts when once told by a Masters patron that he hosted the perfect tournament: "Thank you very much, but we really never get it right."
And secondly, how is it that Tiger always seems to get it right?
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