AUGUSTA, Ga., April 7 When the legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins was among a group of senior golf writers honored earlier in the week for having covered 40 or more Masters tournaments, he joked about remembering the Masters won by Hogan, Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer and the greats. Many of the rest, he said, were just blanks.
"You'll be like that someday, too," he warned the younger writers in the room. "All you'll remember are the 15 or 16 Masters that Tiger Woods won."
He drew a big laugh. Maybe, however, it's not so funny. Tiger Woods is poised to win Green Jacket Number 5.
You may have missed this obvious point in all the commotion. This is the year when we've all discovered what Hootie Johnson has wrought the meanest, toughest golf course in the world without real rough. This is the Masters that morphed into a U.S. Open, where four pars in a row constitute a charge. This is a tournament whose name, fittingly, rhymes with "disasters," and that's the unofficial theme of this bogeyfest. It turned ugly when temperatures dropped to near freezing early Saturday and strong, gusting and bitterly cold winds wreaked havoc and numbed hands.
Woods as a stealth bomber is an out-of-character role, but that's exactly what he was. When Woods finished what felt like a disappointing round of 72, considering he three-putted the par-5 15th for a par and went bogey-bogey on the last two holes, he was four shots off the lead.
"It's not like I'm a hundred back," Woods said after the round. "I've got a shot at it."
By the time the rest of the leaders finished, however, Woods was sitting pretty. The cold, brisk winds continued to take prisoners, and Woods ended up one shot off the lead behind Stuart Appleby, who tripled the 17th hole. So many players fell apart that Woods will tee off in the final pairing on Sunday. And as TV commentators like to remind you every 12 minutes, the Masters winner has come out of the last group on Sunday for 16 straight years.
Can you handle the truth? It's over. Again. Woods is going to win it. Again.
The Masters has turned into a par contest, and nobody makes fewer bogeys than Woods. He charged up the leaderboard on Saturday because he posted an even-par 72. That was the equivalent to a 66, apparently, in a normal Masters. The only other man still standing among the top 10 who didn't shoot over par Saturday was Retief Goosen, who blistered a 70 to get within four of Appleby.
It's pretty easy to size up this Masters. Woods has one man to beat, Appleby. Last week at the Shell Houston Open, Adam Scott tried to hand the tournament to Appleby. All Appleby had to do to win was not hit into the lake left of the green from the fairway bunker on the final hole. But Appleby did hit into the lake and he gave the tournament back to Scott.
Appleby owns a pretty poor track record at Augusta National. He's an Aussie, and he thrives in windy conditions (he won the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii three consecutive times, and that's always a gusty event), but he missed the cut in five of his nine previous Masters. His only top-20 finish was last year, when he tied for 19th. He's broken 70 once in 33 rounds here. You think he can hold off Tiger? Which is the same as holding off history? Which is the same as holding back the Savannah River with a pitchfork? Well, we'd like to see it.
The sobering fact is, conditions will be difficult again Sunday. Woods has the best short game in golf, and even though his long game hasn't been at its best this week, how often does Tiger go four rounds without playing really well at least once? Almost never is the correct answer.
Even more sobering, any other pursuer who wants to win this Masters has to outplay Woods on golf's grandest and most dangerous stage Sunday. Or, all they have to do is outslug Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium. Good luck, gentlemen.
Let's look at who's chasing Woods, or will be. Justin Rose, who has never won in the U.S., is tied with Woods. Rose is a serious talent, but his experience pales against Tiger's. Augusta resident Vaughn Taylor is one shot back, tied with Padraig Harrington and Zach Johnson.
Bradley Dredge is two back. The group at three back is the most formidable. It includes Goosen, Phil Mickelson, Rory Sabbatini, David Toms, Jim Furyk, Luke Donald, Jerry Kelly and Tim Clark. There seems to be potential for a charge from that group until you think about Tiger's record in the final round when he has the lead. It's 38-3. So pick your poison. Is there really someone you think will rally from three shots behind Woods in the final round at Augusta National? I didn't think so.
The golf course is so firm and fast because of the wind that Woods's ability has been negated to a degree. Nobody can make birdies. A lot of short-game wizards can save pars. That's why the field is so bunched. It's unlike the Masters of old, but it's still quite a test.
"It's just different," Woods said. "The way they set up the course, the way it's playing, its length you get dry conditions, this is what's going to happen. At least it hasn't been like this for four days. We actually caught a break."
Nobody else had a reason to feel as optimistic Saturday night. Tiger's relentless march into history continues. And if it doesn't, it'll be a Masters that Dan Jenkins will never forget.