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Woods might get down, but never count him out

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 13, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He is four strokes behind. And he has the tournament gripped by the throat.

He trails four men, and he is tied with two others. And they can hear him coming.

He has played two bad rounds out of three. And everyone here can feel him in the air.

Once again, Tiger Woods is in control of the Masters.

The scoreboard does not know it yet, and the competitors will not admit it, but the claim has been staked. Fifth place be darned, this tournament is Tiger's to lose. Again.

Who can stop him now? Who can stand up to Woods after the way he went pushing through the crowd, leaping over this golfer, shoving aside that one, flying past that one and that one and that one as he worked his way up the leaderboard?

Woods streaked past most of the golfers in the field Saturday, and he left the rest glancing over their shoulders. He came from the edge of elimination to the verge of history. And the strangest thing about seeing him come from behind was, well, seeing him behind to begin with.

What a bizarre day it was in Augusta, with all the protesters and posmarching about. There was Martha Burk, of course. Then there was the Klansman and the cross-dresser and the Elvis impersonator. There was the guy who wore the tuxedo because, he said, he wished to make a formal protest.

Of all the odd sights, however, the strangest you could imagine was this:

Tiger Woods, last place.

And darned lucky to be there.

It was a stunning sight, watching Augusta National push this guy around. You half expect tree limbs to move from his line and Rae's Creek to part as he approaches. This was like watching Rembrandt struggle to color inside the lines. In the tournament he has claimed as his own, Woods was about a hiccup from being shown the way to the parking lot.

Woods had to scramble like the dickens to save par on the ninth hole Saturday morning, completing his rain-delayed second round. He made a nice punch shot from the trees. He blasted out of a sand trap the size of Arizona. He hit a sliding three putt.

All in all, it was a nifty little recovery. What it earned Woods was a tie for 43rd -- buck-naked last, as they say -- and a chance to keep playing. It hardly seemed worth celebrating. Woods was playing awful, and he was 11 shots behind Mike Weir. Officials were beside themselves deciding who was going to tell Woods he had to leave.

Turns out, that was the best thing that could have happened. It gave us a different glimpse of Woods' greatness, one we haven't seen often. It gave us a chance to see him come from behind.

Throughout Woods' career, he usually has established himself early. In all eight of his major titles, he has led or been tied for the lead entering the final round. In his past seven victories overall, he has led or been tied entering the final round.

This is better. The rest of the field has been unable to chase him down; now we get to see him chase them. We get to see him as the hunter rather than the hunted.

If Woods can pull off this worst-to-first Masters, it would be, in some ways, the most impressive major victory of his career. Hey, isn't that how we caught onto Joe Montana?

Who can stop him? Jeff Maggert? Do you think so? Maggert has led eight tournaments in his career after three rounds. He's won only one of them. If someone offered you Maggert and four strokes against Tiger, would you bet your house? Of course not.

How about Weir? That's hard to see, too. Weir could have run off and hid Saturday if he had stayed hot. At one point, he not only led Tiger by 11, he led everybody by six.

Vijay Singh? David Toms? It could happen. Singh has won a Masters, and Toms won the 2001 PGA. At least they've experienced the pressure. But do you take either against Tiger?

Phil Mickelson, who is tied with Tiger? Please. Haven't we been through this before?

Those aren't really the questions, though, are they? The questions are always about Tiger.

Three times, he has had a chance to come from behind in a major. He hasn't done it yet. His run at Mark O'Meara in the '98 British Open fell short. He caught Payne Stewart in '99 at the U.S. Open, but only briefly before Stewart pulled away. And last year at the PGA Championship, two mistakes left Rich Beem with a big enough lead that not even four straight birdies made a difference.

The thing is, it didn't seem like a questionable concept Saturday, not after Woods had hung the 66 next to his name. Hey, he's been coming from behind since the first hole of this Masters when he bogeyed.

"I'm just going to play the course for what it has in front of me," Woods said. "You guys think we just throw on a switch and all of the sudden we can shoot 62s and 63s."

Woods knows better. A 68 will probably do it; a 66 will probably clinch it. Look at the leaderboard, and you have to like his chances. Look at his competitors, and you have to love them.

Here's the difference. Even when Woods stood under that tree on the ninth hole, facing the cut, he was thinking about winning the tournament. Even when he was in the bunker, or on the green, or in the clubhouse looking at all the names on top of his, he was thinking about winning it. Get back to even par, he kept telling himself, or hopefully under.

He made it. He is close again.

You can think about the men in his way, or you can think about this.

He wears a size 42 long jacket.

He likes a size $1.08-million check.

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