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THE 66TH MASTERS | Bill Plaschke

Another Chance to Ride Along With Tiger? Amen to That

April 14, 2002|Bill Plaschke

AUGUSTA, Ga. — You are writing about anyone but him.

You are sitting amid the birds and flowers and stinking mud at Amen Corner, and you are waiting for the story, and you don't know what it is, but you know what it isn't.

It is not the guy whose name appeared in 654 stories in this newspaper last year.

It is not the guy who has swallowed up the rest of golf and is bloated from the publicity and is making us queasy from the overkill and ...

Then a little white hand sticks through a hole in the wooden leaderboard.

That little hand places a giant red number next to the guy's name.

The crowd gasps, hundreds swallowing the Southern humidity at precisely the same time, the whoosh of a giant vacuum cleaner.

And you are sucked in again.

It's Tiger Woods, one hole back, making his fourth birdie.

It's the human ninth-inning rally, the living fourth-quarter comeback, our greatest sportsman doing his favorite dance on his sport's biggest stage.

It's Tiger Woods, making another charge at the Masters.

It's a fool who will not jump on for the ride.

So you do, picking him up at the 11th hole Saturday, sloshing through the sludge, bouncing off the crowds, hanging with Swedish girlfriends and doting moms and history.

The roll lasts all afternoon, but only 66 strokes long, taking Woods past six other golfers and into a tie for the lead entering today's final round.

(The tie is with a guy named Retief Goosen, who is now officially cooked.)

The roll is about scrunched shirt sleeves and folded cap bills and by the time it gets to the 18th green, it's about redemption.

As Woods stands in the middle of the fairway preparing his approach shot, it begins raining. Hard. You want to leave. It's late in the day. If you hurry, you can watch the last shot on television.

But fans sitting and standing 10-deep around the green, they open umbrellas and unfold ponchos and stay. They know. You stick your notebook under your shirt and stay with them.

As Woods hits an approach shot that carries some 30 feet past the hole, everyone is murmuring, "Too long, too long ..."

Then the ball hits the green and, despite the wetness, despite the odds, the ball inexplicably spins back 20 feet toward the cup.

The crowd is gasping again, then wildly cheering, then closing their umbrellas.

Because by the time Woods reaches the green, the rain has stopped.

And by the time he follows the birdie putt into the hole and points at it like a child who has just followed his instructions--where have we seen that before?--the tournament is essentially over.

"I rolled the rock pretty good today," he said with a grin.

Rock and roll is right.

Following Woods, a tired exercise often avoided by the media until absolutely necessary these days, remains the most wonderfully bloody American thing about golf.

Woods is one of only two U.S.-born players on the Masters' 10-person leaderboard, but he makes more noise than the rest of the board combined.

Amid the all-white crowds, his diverse entourage stands out like fresh lettuce in this land of the deep fry. Following him Saturday were an Asian-American mom (Tilda), a Swedish girlfriend (Elin Nordegren) and several African-American friends.

Amid the oh-so-polite atmosphere here, his crowds are also not afraid to shout. Woods still gets all the whoops, most of the screams--"Tiger! Tiger!"--and standing ovations that start 40 yards before anyone else.

He is also increasingly unafraid to be himself. Despite fighting out of traps and fringes for most of the back nine Saturday, he laughed and joked and even took time to eat a banana while walking down the middle of the 14th fairway.

"Every year, you go through a learning curve," he said, later adding, "You learn how to handle yourself and handle certain situations a little bit better, through either failures or successes."

All this, despite waking up at 4:30 a.m. and playing 26 holes because of Friday's rain delay.

"You know, if you can get in the final group, you know at least you've done your job that day," he said.

The final group? Most golfers cringe at the hot lights of the final group. Most would rather sneak to a championship.

You imagine, too, that Kobe Bryant would like the final group. Joe Montana would have loved the final group.

Then you realize, watching Woods in the final round is like watching Bryant in the fourth quarter, or Montana in the final minutes, watching greatness earn its beauty by blooming under pressure.

In major tournaments in which he has led or tied for the lead going into the final day, Woods is six for six.

In all PGA Tour events in this situation, he is 22-2.

The statistics are numbing. The noise is deafening. The ride is a blast.

And so millions more will climb aboard today, hands in the air, Tiger Woods in the house, rock and roll.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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