Work of a maestro as much as a master

A more mature Tiger Woods is No. 1 again with a closet full of green jackets.

On the scorecard, the name was the same. On the greens, the fist pumps were facsimiles of those that had once scattered competitors like squirrels before an oncoming 18-wheeler. Even the result recalled the days when his drives carried 300 yards, arrow straight, and his name carried the weight of certain victory.

Yet the Tiger Woods whose final putt fell into the cup Sunday afternoon to win the Masters - his first win in 10 major tournaments - was a very different golfer from the one who trod the sport underfoot three years ago.

Yesterday's Tiger was as much about caution as invention, as much about the duffer's hacks on 17 and 18 that nearly lost him the tournament as the shot on 16 that seemingly paused to consider its own absurdity before tumbling into Master's legend.

On that evidence alone, this was no lesser Tiger who won Sunday. But neither was it Zeus come down from Olympus with a three wood, as so often seemed the case in the past. Rather, this was merely the man, both awed by his own brilliance and frustrated by his own failures, finally coming to grips with his fallibility and learning to overcome it.

From the beginning, this was a Masters fitter for patience and perseverance than for perfection. For the first two days, it was a long, slow slog of determination as unrelenting rains turned the grounds of Augusta National to gelatin. Woods started appropriately enough, opening with a round of golf more fitful than the Georgia skies - spraying balls into bunkers and creeks in ways that seemed almost beyond belief.

It was a flood of errors that washed away every layer of his game, from putts to chips to drives, leaving only the bedrock: his will.

Even in earlier years, that had been his most devastating weapon - a single-minded refusal to fail that cowed competitors and courses alike. On Thursday, it kept him from simply dissolving into the azaleas. And on Sunday, it won him a green jacket.

To be sure, there were flashes of the Tiger that once was and could be again: his outrageous chip on 16, his flawless play on the sudden-death hole, and his stretch of seven consecutive birdies - tying a course record. Yet this was a different sort of day for Woods - perhaps unlike any other in his golfing career.

First of all, there was the business of beating an opponent who made Kenneth Starr look like a quitter. Chris DiMarco had the strokes of an architect and the bite of a bulldog. Yet when Woods came off looking second best at times, it wasn't only to DiMarco - but to the nearly impossible standards he set for himself years ago.

This was his first opportunity to win a major since 2002, and with a three-stroke lead heading onto the back nine, the pressure to win was immense - and obvious.

While DiMarco's game was plumb line perfect, splitting fairways as if he were playing with a protractor and compass rather than sticks of graphite and steel, Woods alternated brash howitzer blasts from the tee with tentative putts from the fringe, poking and prodding in a way that never looked entirely convincing.

Then again, more has always been expected of Woods. This is the golfer who once won six consecutive tournaments, the golfer who held all four major titles at the same time in 2001 - the first time the feat had ever been accomplished.

Yet since 2002, he had not won a single major. What's more, he hadn't even come close. In 2003 and 2004, his average finish at the four majors was 19th; he was never higher than fourth.

"I wasn't winning major championships," Woods conceded in his press conference after the Masters. "For the most part, I wasn't in contention on the back nine on every major, like I like to be."

Along with the drop in form came crises over which clubs he was using as drives turned into gallery-bound scud missiles, then came significant tinkering with his swing and a marriage to a former model that brought the tabloids calling.

In two years, Woods had gone from a golfing colossus to an erratic enigma.

So for the second consecutive spring, the Masters has brought redemption. Last year, it was Phil Mickelson who shed his title as "the best golfer never to win a major."

This Sunday, as the gloom of a turbulent spring gave way to the soft sun of a clear April afternoon, Woods officially reestablished himself as the world's No. 1 golfer, and - for the moment - chased away the doubts.

Years ago, golf's greatest champion, Jack Nicklaus, declared that Woods would one day shatter his records.

A day after Nicklaus all but announced that he would never again play at the Masters, Woods won his ninth major, putting him halfway to Nicklaus's mark of 18. After a nervy afternoon at Augusta, Woods smiled: "It's a long way to go."

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