Sundays with Tiger

Sunday August 12th, 2007
Jason Seiler

Rory Sabbatini's assertion at the 2007 Players Championship that Tiger Woods is "more beatable than ever" was oddly timed, coming just four days after Woods had throttled Sabbatini by five strokes in the final pairing of the Wachovia, Woods' 57th PGA Tour title.

But you could understand why Sabbatini said it: Woods is still winning, but not by the dominant margins of old. He's wilder off the tee than ever; he didn't card a single birdie in the first round of the Players; and perhaps most damning of all, he allowed Zach Johnson to steal this year's Masters right from under his nose.

The Masters marked both the first time Woods has lost a major while playing in the final pairing and the first time he surrendered a final-round lead in a major (Woods briefly held a one-shot advantage early in the round), but one wonders: Would Johnson have prevailed had he been paired with Woods?

It's a relevant question because, Sabbatini's contentions aside, one indisputable fact remains about Woods: he has never played in the final group in the final round of a major and lost the title to the player with whom he was paired.

Under those circumstances, he is unbeatable — a perfect 12 for 12 — an imposing stat that confirms not only Tiger's dominance when dominance counts most, but also the chilling effect he has on the guy teeing it up next to him. Indeed, even when Woods has lost majors while he was in the mix, as at the 2007 Masters, 2002 PGA and 1999 U.S. Open, he outplayed the men paired with him (Stuart Appleby, Fred Funk and Tim Herron, respectively).

During this run, Woods has dispatched all classes of players: pretenders to the throne (David Duval), Canada's Tiger (Mike Weir), career grinders (Bob May) and Hall-of-Fame shoe-ins (Ernie Els, Retief Goosen). His contemporaries are so desperate to figure out how to beat him on Sundays that they've even begun to contemplate how to dress for the occasion.

After beating Shaun Micheel at the HSBC World Match Play last fall, Paul Casey said he'd have worn something besides red had he played Woods in the final because "Tiger owns that color." Luke Donald, who had donned a red shirt a month earlier at the PGA, was less timid. "I had planned my outfits before," he says. "I wasn't going to change just because I was playing with Tiger. He adds, "I was wearing white pants," as if his sartorial choice might have led fans to confuse the two players.

Woods won by five.

In winning a dozen majors Woods has defeated his final-round playing partners by an average of 69.25 to 72.92. Were it not for gritty performances by Bob May at the 2000 PGA and Chris DiMarco at the 2005 Masters, the disparity would be even greater. Woods' play in the majors has been exhaustively chronicled. But why is it that the guys paired with him play so poorly? Why, with few exceptions, have they lost hope before they reach the turn?

Costantino Rocca, who played with Woods on Sunday at the 1997 Masters, offers a clue: "I see a lot of players who are very good, but never in my entire life (have I) heard the noise that went through his ball when he hit it. What a noise! So strong and pure when he hit it."

Indeed, while some men, like Rocca, have begun the final day too far back to win, others haven't stood a chance because, despite their best intentions, they've morphed into awestruck fans.

"The quality of golf shot, and the audio that you hear, is different," says John Cook, Tiger's close friend. "It's the way a golf ball is compressed, and the way it looks, when a shot is properly struck. I've seen him hit thousands and thousands of golf balls, and the quality of the golf shots that he hits is unlike anybody that's ever played the game, bar none. Zero. Hogan — anybody."

And yet there are other, more ordinary reasons why so many men have failed in their big moment: couldn't make a putt, couldn't weave through the Tiger Mob from green to tee, couldn't hit a bunker shot, couldn't breathe.

Herewith, the 11 players who have tried and failed to play with the world's No. 1 eye-to-eye, where it all went wrong and how the experience felt in their own words.

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