AUGUSTA, Ga. — A 4-iron wasn’t the only thing that Tiger Woods broke Sunday at the Masters.
Fractured, too, was the myth that the man couldn’t be beat once he grabbed the outright lead in the final round of a major.
Twice before, Woods had been caught and passed. But both times — in the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla and here a year later — Woods came out on top. In this wackiest of Masters, he held the lead for all of a few minutes after making a birdie at the second hole, then spent the rest of the day trying in vain to catch a rotating cast of characters going by him in Augusta National’s passing lane.
“I had a chance, but looking back over the week, I basically blew this tournament on two rounds where I had bogey-bogey finishes,” Woods said, referring to Nos. 17 and 18.
“That’s 4-over on two holes,” he added. “You can’t afford to do that and win major championships.”
Zach Johnson was parked on the 18th green with the winning score of 1-over 289 when Woods walked onto the 17th tee knowing he would need a birdie-birdie finish over those same two holes just to force a playoff.
The greatest front-runner in golf made par at 17 after driving the ball into the right rough and trying to float a wedge on the wind at his back and land it close enough to have a shot at a 3. No sooner had the ball landed in a bunker short of the green than Woods said loudly, “What the hell happened there?”
Though he wasn’t officially done until his approach shot from the fairway to the final green stopped rolling some 20 feet to the right of the pin, he knew a miracle finish wasn’t in the cards the moment the ball left the clubface.
Asked whether it was different being forced to play catch up, something Woods’ rivals know only too well, Tiger simply said, “I’m playing the same holes he (Johnson) is, so if I make the same birdies as he does on the same holes, it’s a moot point.”
That’s true, of course. But there’s nobody in the game, no matter what club he has in his hands, that you would rather lay money down on. Woods has been golf’s version of Michael Jordan with the basketball in his hands and the clock ticking down, Lance Armstrong with a crushing mountain climb coming into view, Joe Montana with first-and-10 and a minute to go the length of the field. In other words, clutch.
This time he was anything but.
“He guts-ed it,” Stuart Appleby, the third-round leader and Woods’ playing partner Sunday, said with admiration. “He tried.”
But this once, Woods didn’t deliver.
He looked ready when his tee shot at 11 came to rest on pine straw under a tree on the right side of the fairway. There, Woods took a stance that ensured his follow-through would drive the shaft of the club squarely against the tree’s trunk. He swung hard, anyway, bending the shaft so severely that he snapped it a moment later as easily as if it were a twig.
After a sensational par there, though, Woods had a brief twinge of regret when he bombed a drive around the corner at the par-5 13th and decided to go for the green in two.
“Ironically, on 13, it was the perfect club, that 4-iron. I had to hit a 5-iron as hard as I could over the creek and hook it back,” he said. “It’s not the shot you want to hit.”
But he hit that one, too, and just like the recovery at No. 11, pulled it off. The approach landed a half-foot from the top edge of the 13th green, then trickled down to 3 feet. The ensuing eagle putt dropped Woods to 3-over and two strokes behind Johnson. Game on.
Anybody who had seen Woods hole an almost-impossible chip from behind the 16th green — the ball’s logo even posed for a deep breath before falling into the cup — en route to another green jacket two years ago couldn’t wait to see what was next. This time, though, most of them watched Woods coming down the stretch by sneaking peeks through the gaps in the fingers covering their eyes.
Johnson couldn’t bear to do even that much.
“I really wasn’t looking at the leaderboard,” he said afterward. “I left that up to Damon (Green), my caddie. I never really knew where I stood.
“I said, ‘Damon, should I look? Should I look?’ I didn’t know until the 17th, and then I realized I just had to play solid and go from there.”
Turns out Johnson could have peeked much earlier. After the 13th, Woods uncharacteristically ran out of magic.
He dunked a second shot at the par-5 15th and had to scramble to make par. He hit a 7-iron to 12 feet below the hole at the par-3 16th and missed that.
“It was difficult, very difficult,” Woods said. “It was the hardest Masters I’ve ever seen, with the wind, the dryness, the speed of these things. I told a couple guys out here this week, ‘I was glad I had metal spikes on, or I would have slipped on the greens, they were so slick.’ “
Woods exited the clubhouse soon after, surrounded by his agent and four security guards, sipping a diet soda and carrying a new driver under his arm. He headed for the driving range and so strong is the legend that’s grown up around Woods that a few people following him actually thought he was going to practice.
Instead, he used a back entrance to the players’ parking lot, started up the car and drove down Magnolia Lane. There would be no more golf this day. This Masters was over, and with it went a piece of Tiger’s aura of invincibility.