Killer Instinct

Now, for the traditional winner's interview, we take you to the Oprah Cabin.

Then there was the bit of untidiness caused by The Letter. Former champs Doug Ford (1957), Gay Brewer (1967) and Billy Casper (1970) each received a chilling missive from Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson, which read, "Your record is not indicative of active participation." (Translation: Your lifetime invitation just expired.) You think Tiger is cold? All it lacked was, "P.S.: We've included some hemlock for your personal use."

Why they didn't simply call them or nudge them at the Tuesday night champions dinner, nobody knows. It hurt so bad that Brewer boycotted the dinner in protest.

So when no less than Arnold Palmer shot 89 the first day, it became clear that his Masters moments were finished. "Tomorrow will be my last day," he said last Thursday. "I don't want to get a letter."

Made you wonder who would get a letter next.

Dear Mr. Ballesteros ...

Dear Mr. Jordan ...

Dear Senator Thurmond ...

At least Palmer got a send-off, instead of a shove-off, and thank God, because the throngs roared their farewells at every hole. Grown men wiped their eyes on their sleeves for the man who popularized the Masters. "Seems like he's been here since there was daylight," Woods said wistfully. And now that he's gone, it seems just a little darker.

Will you miss this place, Arnie? a reporter asked him with gravity.

"Nah," he said.

Why not? said the surprised writer.

"I'm a member!"

What was done to toughen up the course will make it easier for guys like Jack Nicklaus to leave too. Augusta National is now longer than The Green Mile. Johnson increased the length of nine holes, some, like the 18th, by 60 yards, and added trees everywhere. "On 18 you've got to drive it up a gnat's ass," said Greg Norman, memorably. There were more three-woods hit this week at the Masters than at the Duluth Lions Club Invitational. Only the constant rains kept the scores low. If there had been any wind, over par would've won this thing. And will next year.

Charles Barkley was right. The changes were racist. Not a single Asian player made it into the top 10. "The days of Larry Mize and Ben Crenshaw winning this thing are over," said Jeff Sluman, himself rather a short hitter.

Five years ago, after Woods's roundhouse win, Jesper Parnevik said, "Unless they build Tiger tees about 50 yards back, he's going to win the next 20 of these." Well, they just did, and he won anyway.

"You want to Tigerproof a course?" Earl Woods was saying while waiting for his son to try on another green jacket. "Move the tee box to the ladies' tee. Eliminate the rough completely. Cut the greens to 8 or 9 [on the stimpmeter]. And I'll guarantee you, Tiger won't win. But this course plays right into his hands."

It was chilling how resolutely his son won last week, as if it were just something to check off on a sheet, an item on a grocery list.

O.K. Let's see.... One hundred million dollar endorsement deal? Check.... Swedish bikini-model girlfriend (former Parnevik nanny Elin Nordegren)? Check.... Win third Masters? Check.

Really, he won it on Saturday with a boatload of hard work. He woke at 4:30 a.m., trailing Singh by six shots, played 26 rain-delayed holes in eight under and by nightfall had tied with Goosen for the lead at 11 under. Twenty-four times in his PGA Tour career Woods had held or shared a lead going into the fourth round. Twenty-two times he had closed the deal. Even Goosen's home country of South Africa must not have liked his chances. It didn't send a single reporter.

It was over so quickly. CBS came on an hour early to beat a predicted storm, but if you didn't know that, you missed the executions entirely. The leaders teed off at 2:10. By 2:21 Goosen had three-putted number 1, and Woods had a lead between his choppers he would never let go. By 2:36 Tiger had birdied number 2 out of a greenside bunker, Goosen missed an easy birdie and Woods had a two-shot lead. By 3 p.m. it was a three-shot lead after Woods hit an ungodly wedge on number 3 for a kick-in birdie. Then came the chilling chip-in at 6, and the rest of it was just safe sides of fairways and fats of greens. After the requisite drive up the gnat's ass on 18, there was nothing left to worry about but warming up the Citation 10.

It had all the suspense of a good floss. Maybe less. Whereas Tiger's first Masters was about the emotion of becoming the first black man to win at snow-white Augusta and the second was about the glory of becoming the first man ever to win four majors in a row, the third seemed just a highway stop to gas up, get sandwiches and beat on ceaselessly toward Greatest Ever.

If Woods can win majors at this pace -- seven every six years -- until he's 40, he would have 21, beating Nicklaus by three. And Nicklaus won three after 40. Then again, the year is young.

You think you could win all four in one year this time? somebody asked Woods afterward.

"I've done four in a row before," he said. "It'd be great to do it in one year, just 'cause it'd be something different."

It's like an astronaut yawning, Yeah, I'd like to walk on Mars. Hey, it'd be different, right?

But this guy is different. This guy is like nothing golf has ever seen. And as he grows ever more murderous on the inside, he grows more generous on the outside. After his round, for instance, adorned in sweaty clothes and that hideous green garment, Woods thanked the crowd repeatedly. "I worked my butt off this week," he said to the fans as he stood on the practice putting green. "And to walk up 18 and hear that applause, well, it was a nice little reward."

Two hours later he came out of a cabin on the Augusta National grounds showered, $1,008,000 richer, escorting the drop-dead Nordegren on his left and holding a cold Budweiser in his right.

O.K., so maybe a guy deserves more than one nice little reward, right?

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