Killer Instinct

August 19, 2011

This story on Tiger Woods’ win at the 2002 Masters first appeared in the April 22, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated.

There never has been, never will be, a killer like Tiger Woods. Not then, not now, not ever. The boy is a man now, and the man is as unstoppable as winter. He has all the empathy of a Luger. His mind is a lockbox, his will a Russian tank. He is a finisher, in the manner of Luca Brasi or Babyface Nelson. He is the kind of man who buries you, then comes to your grave on your birthday and kicks over your tombstone.

He proved it again on Sunday in the formerly innocent little town of Augusta. One hundred years after Bobby Jones was born, on the occasion of Arnold Palmer’s last Masters, Tiger Woods methodically unscrewed a brilliant leader board — his final numbers were 70-69-66-71 for a 12-under 276 — to win his third green jacket, which he takes now, proudly, and hides in the deepest part of his closet.

“I mean, it’s not like you’re going to walk around with this thing on, are you?” he said, looking at it with distaste.

That’s him. He doesn’t really want it for himself. He just wants to take it from you.

After his second straight Masters win Woods now has seven majors, and he’s still only 26. Nobody’s gotten to seven this fast, but that’s not the brain-bending part. The brain-bending part is that he still doesn’t have a second-place finish in a major. Jack Nicklaus had six seconds by now. If Woods finished second in a major, the top of his head might explode. Hit men don’t do second. He gets ahold of your neck, he doesn’t let go until you’re a throw rug.

He has won dramatically. He has won artistically. But this one should’ve been directed by Hitchcock. I Know What You Did Last April. They moved nine of the 18 tee boxes back to Aiken, S.C., and they planted 50-year-old trees where none had been before, and they even made the joint smell like a cross between Gary, Ind., and a 4-H fair. It poured rain on him, and they made him play 26 holes in one day and gave him a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. They even threw the very best in the world at him: Numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 on the World Ranking list — at once! — and they all went home in boxes.

Take Phil Mickelson (No. 2 in the world). He seemed to have his mind right. He’s been reading Stephen Hawking books on quantum physics. One night last month he sat up in bed and exclaimed to his wife, Amy, “Do you realize how small we are?” He even had New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra in his camp. And when Mickelson birdied the first two holes out of bunkers in the final round, it looked as if enlightenment would be his. Then he bogeyed the next two while Tiger birdied two of his first three.

As Mickelson waited to hit on the 8th tee, a thunderclap of a roar went up for Tiger’s chip-in birdie at number 6. All the love for the universe drained out of Mickelson’s face. Poor bastard. His parents had the gall to beget him in the era of Tiger Woods.

Or take Retief Goosen (No. 4 in the world). Hottest player on the planet coming in. Winner of six of his last 24 starts. Even had his sports psychologist with him, Jos Vanstiphout. Came to the course on Sunday morning tied for the lead and promptly got stomped flatter than pita bread. If it had been match play, Tiger would’ve been 4 up after four holes. Goosen wound up three back in second place. Said the shrink, “If Retief was playing to full capacity, he would have beaten Tiger by 50 shots.” Riggggght.

Goosen didn’t seem to believe it. He looked like a man who’d been run over by a bus and was just glad to be alive. “Do I get the green pants for finishing second?” he asked.

Or take Ernie Els (third in the world). He started four back, and Tiger never let him get much closer than that. Tired of waiting for Tiger to make a mistake, Els decided to make his own, playing the famous par-5 13th with an oar and flippers to wind up with an 8. Or take Sergio García (fifth in the world). He’s supposed to step up one of these days to challenge Tiger, but instead he stepped back, with a wimpy 75. Or take Vijay Singh (seventh in the world). Trailing by four with four to play, he rinsed two thirds of a sleeve into the pond in front of the par-5 15th — two out-and-out 18-handicap chunks, by the way — on his way to a 9, to put his hopes in a slingh.

“I don’t care what any of these guys say about not looking at him or not noticing what he’s doing,” mused Tiger’s father, Earl, afterward outside the Butler Cabin. “Tiger intimidates through osmosis. You feel it. It freaks people out.”

The whole week kind of did that. Sam Snead hit the ceremonial first drive of the tournament straight into the spectacles of a spectator. And yet CBS announcer Jim Nantz didn’t mention a word about it in recapping the shot on Saturday. Then again, being a Masters announcer on CBS is like writing for the Baghdad Bugle. One negative word, and you’re hanging upside down by your toenails.

Nor was there a single word from CBS about the week’s odor, which had the unmistakable aroma of Eau d’ Oink. It smelled like Grade C manure, though an Augusta National spokesman insisted the rain had simply dredged up naturally decaying grass. Riiiiiight. So why was it that Nick Faldo turned to Davis Love III as they played on Sunday and said, “Somebody brought their pet cow”?

And the mud. There was mud everywhere. Mud on the balls and mud on the IMG agents’ $600 Italian loafers and mud on the steep hills, which made for great fun watching proper Southern belles in print dresses go sliding rump-down through the muck and slime and then get up, laughing liltingly and twittering, “Well, ahh nevah!”

Then there was the mudslinging from an Augusta National member himself: Lloyd Ward, a USOC executive. Ward, who happens to be black, told USA Today it was high time the Old Coots Club took in some female members. The club had no official comment, but the mind spun at what changes that might bring.

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?