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Four-gone Conclusion

Still, everybody seemed to recognize that a timetable was at work, that a point would come when Woods's major machinery would be set in motion. Sure enough, Woods rose to the top for Sunday's show, but six golfers were within three shots of his lead. The Mickelson pairing was tantalizing, not only because Mickelson is one of those greatest-golfers-never-to-have-won-a-major, but also because of his luck in Tiger duels. Overlooked was Duval, whose heart has always been broken at Augusta and will no doubt be broken again.

Despite an injury to his wrist that forced him to miss the four Tour events preceding the Masters, Duval shot a very fit 71-66-70 and then, playing two groups ahead of Sunday's leaders, unreeled seven birdies in the first 10 holes to grab a share of the lead with Woods. Duval, who was in the hunt on Sunday before losing to Vijay Singh at Augusta last year and to O'Meara three years ago, kept track of Woods as best he could. Roars would rattle through the pines, one neighboring rill to another, and frankly, "It seemed like a lack of them," Duval recalled. "I was thinking, I'm in it."

He was, until the par-3 16th, when he hit his seven-iron 183 yards and flew the green. The treachery of Augusta is that even the smallest mistakes can be compounded into career-changing errors. Balls hit greens just wrong, find some unseen chute and roll back into the drink, and some poor golfer is never the same. So it might be with Duval, whose chip left him a seven-foot putt, which he missed for bogey: loss of lead, end of story (though his six-foot miss on 18 with a chance to pull into a tie with Woods was a needlessly cruel coda).

Woods used the same 16th green to shake off Mickelson, who was gaining momentum. Mickelson barely missed a birdie putt of 35 feet, but it rolled seven feet past. He flubbed the return for a bogey, while Woods made par. Who didn't see this coming?

If the tournament seemed to lack suspense, even with the game's three best golfers flailing at each other to the end, it was entertaining enough. Educational might be a better word. The first three days, as they often do, drew the curtains aside for a peek into the real world of golf, in which a less dignified desperation governs the field and folks scrabble for lost swings, new grips, an old peace of mind -- anything to make a cut or just stay on Tour.

Chris DiMarco was the first to bring golf's underworld to the fore, cruising to a 65 and a Day One lead, stubbornly holding it into Saturday and then going shot-for-shot (more or less) with Woods in round 3. DiMarco would not wilt in Georgia's little hothouse, acting pretty much as if this were where he belonged. Except it was only six years ago that he couldn't make a three-foot putt. "He was ready to quit," his father, Rich, said. A slump is not failing to win in eight tournaments; a slump is earning $18,000, as DiMarco did in '96, and having a wife and two kids.

Then a fellow pro showed him, as a kind of drill, a radical way to hold a putter. DiMarco adopted the ugly-looking grip -- fully contorted, with his left thumb pointing down and his right pointing up -- as his full-time stroke. Somehow the yips went away, and he began winning money, almost $2 million last year, and that put him remarkably at ease with a Tiger pairing.

It's not a game for the faint of heart. Rocco Mediate, who shot 66 on Saturday to make a surprise appearance on the leader board, was another rehab project, resurrecting his game some years ago with a chin-high putter. Mark Calcavecchia, who was runner-up at the Masters in 1988 and hardly in contention at Augusta since, had a 66 on Friday and a 68 on Saturday, climbing to within two shots of Tiger. Until he invented his own clawlike putting grip last season, the shaft running between his fingers, Calcavecchia was hopeless on the greens. "Anything outside of 18 inches," he said, "was 50-50."

A stranger to golf, seeing these three together on a putting green, might be excited by the possibilities of reinvention (whereas a purist would be horrified by the collective lack of form). It turns out that, with enough imagination, you can come back.

The tournament also reminded us of the generational divide that separates, roughly, Tiger's era from everybody else's. More to the point, that divide means about 20 extra yards off the tee. "The players today," said O'Meara, sounding much older than 44, "hit the ball so much farther and have such a big advantage." For 2002 the club intends to strengthen the defenses of some par-4s with extra yardage, although that would seem to reward Woods, longest off the tee through the tournament, rather than punish him.

The message, above all, is that Woods mocks the field with his talent and youth, and the only way to halfway keep up is to cobble together odd grips or layouts. Yet for all that, he did not lap the field, winning by 12 strokes as he had in 1997 when his dominance was announced. Instead, and to the frustration of those who believed Jack Nicklaus when he predicted 10 green jackets for Woods, he destroyed the competition by increments. In its way, this kind of play is scarier. Let the DiMarcos of the world have their fun on Thursday and Friday because, underlying each event, there is the inevitability of Woods, picking up strokes here and there until it's over. "He seems to do just what is required," said Mickelson, "and I think if I had made a run [on Sunday], he may have followed suit."

His competitors are not sure how to deal with this, whether they should fool themselves into thinking they really are in this game or whether they should throw in the towel. Mickelson, emboldened by a couple of head-to-head wins over Woods last year, is a holdout when it comes to gushing over Tiger. Afterward he refused to frame Woods's sweep of the majors in any historical way, saying, "I really haven't been thinking about it." And just to prove he wasn't mesmerized by his partner on Sunday, he added that he hadn't even bothered to watch a single stroke of Tiger's. "I just chose not to," he said.

Not even Duval, friendly with Woods and likely to be generous, would admit he had come along at the wrong time. He believes it is possibly a good thing, competing under this looming presence. "It will make my victories in these majors that much more special," he said. Because Duval had had a tough day, nobody laughed or pointed out that such wins are imaginary to this point.

But you've got to have hope. How do you play golf without hope? What would be the point of tooling up Magnolia Lane year after year, packing a dreary resignation along with that new, let's say nose-high, putter. Better to believe that someone will think of something, a way to Tiger-proof the game. These are men who are familiar with desperation and, having come this far, are unyielding and resourceful in its face. Maybe some long-shot gambit, like the Super Bowl Ravens, will finally come through for a particularly daring golfer. Who knows? So, no, they will not admit to us or themselves that this really is Tiger's world and they're only in on exemptions.

Having seen what we've seen, though, we know better. At the end of the day, with the sun dropping behind the tall pines, last year's champion, Singh, slipped the green jacket over Woods's shoulders for Augusta's annual coronation. Then, heeding the calls of photographers, he did it again. The photographers wanted more, and Singh kept slipping the jacket on Woods, over and over and over, and it suddenly seemed that in some trick of time compression the future was being unspooled, however jerkily, for us. He just kept putting that jacket on, over and over and over.

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