Bland slam

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --This wasn't how he had planned it. Wasn't how Sunday evening at the Masters was supposed to go. I guess it's not really a surprise. After all, Tiger Woods played 72 holes of golf and barely gave any indication that he was hungry for the top spot of the leader board, that he really wanted to stretch his bulging arms through the sleeves of a green jacket for a fifth time.

So it makes sense that as Trevor Immelman made the slow walk up the 18th fairway, just a couple of shots away from etching his anonymous name permanently into Augusta National lore, Woods couldn't wait to get far away from the celebration.

Woods had told the television analyst that he was going to get a bite to eat, but there was no reason to stick around too long. He and his caddie piled into separate golf carts and zipped away from the clubhouse. Before Immelman even reached the final green, Woods had eased himself into the driver's seat of a chocolate-colored Buick SUV and left the course wearing black, not green. A second-place finish, not first.

He began the week flirting with immortality. He ended it as mortal as ever, equally capable of staggering defeat as he is of immeasurable success. His final-round 72 left him forever three shots behind Immelman on the scorecards.

"I just didn't quite have it this week," Woods said.

It's hard to argue with that. Woods misread putts, misgauged yardages and hit just one birdie putt of any length. Entering the final day six strokes behind the leader - a sizable margin to be sure - Woods not only didn't give chase, he also never even revved his engine. It's a big part of why he has yet to come from behind on a Sunday to win a major tournament.

The past few days, it was almost as if Woods thought he could check in at the front gate of Magnolia Lane and the bellhop would lead him to the green jacket ceremony Sunday.

Instead, yesterday he slipped out to the parking lot, while the entire course turned into a funnel surrounding the 18th green. Immelman - a 28-year-old South African who didn't even make the cut at the Houston Open one week ago - saved par and won the 72nd Masters, despite shooting a 3-over-par 75 in the final round.

Only Woods could afford to be so visibly disappointed with a second-place finish. He showed that he's indeed mortal, which seems like a rather idiotic thing to point out. But it's a credit to Woods that we keep losing sight of that fact. The Greeks and Romans had their immortals. We want ours.

The disappointment yesterday was intensified by weighty expectations, by Woods' incredible recent play and by a seed of competitive hyperbole that Woods himself had planted, saying that the Grand Slam was within his reach.

This Grand Slam didn't even reach the warning track.

Even though he began the day with four golfers to catch, Woods expected the lead to gravitate toward him. After all, his own standing might have been in question, but these other guys were undoubtedly mortals. To Woods' credit, three of the four did, in fact, implode. Brandt Snedeker, Steve Flesch and Paul Casey shot a combined 18-over par.

But not Immelman.

The field's inability to make a charge at the lead made for a ho-hum finale. Fans at home could be forgiven if they flipped channels to TLC's What Not to Wear. Better than Augusta's How Not to Shoot.

Despite the large deficit, Woods was always the one with the best chance. But when it counted most, he missed the putts a champion makes, the ones he usually makes. When it counted most, the best golfer in the world played like a mortal.

Immelman has no illusions. It might have been his day, but as he said last night: "I'm playing in Tiger Woods' era."

"To win a major while he's playing, and he's playing at his peak - he's told us that he's playing at his peak - it's a hell of an achievement," Immelman said. "I'm not sure if I'll ever get it done again, but I'll be trying my best."

Woods' rare failures help us appreciate his vulnerability, of course. It reminds us that simply flirting with immortality is a pretty special thing.

The final scene of Woods' final round was torn from a script. Only the context and circumstances had been tweaked. Television execs, Nike suits and the world's greatest golfer had all imagined it this way: On the 18th green, Tiger Woods sinks a big putt for birdie. And yesterday, he did just that.

Unfortunately, instead of a fist pump, his right hand seemed embarrassed as it poked through the Georgia breeze and offered the gallery a polite wave. Woods shook his head from side to side, seemingly in disbelief that on the 72nd hole, maybe he had finally found his putting stroke.

This must be how mortals feel.

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