Sundays with Tiger

Sundays with Tiger

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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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