04/14/05 — Opinion

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By News-Argus Staff
Published in Sports on April 14, 2005 1:58 PM

Tiger Woods' ball stopped in front of the 16th hole at Augusta National Golf Club, then dived to the bottom of the cup.

About a half-hour later, Chris DiMarco's ball rolled toward the 18th hole, caught the right edge of the cup and spun viciously away.

That make-and-miss combination ultimately decided the 69th Masters.

With a fractionally different result in either case, DiMarco could have won the tournament in regulation instead of losing in a playoff.

And now, looking ahead, this is the real difference: If DiMarco had won, nobody would have wondered about his chances for the 2005 Grand Slam.

Woods responded to such an inquiry by joking about visiting a pancake house, only he had the wrong franchise. Still, the question said everything about the state of golf.

The game's on again.

Thanks to the Tiger Revival at Augusta, nine weeks seems like an awfully long time to wait for the next major, the U.S. Open in mid-June at Pinehurst.

It's shaping up as a terrific year for the majors at three more classic courses: Pinehurst No. 2, St. Andrews and Baltusrol.

The majors are the majors, no matter who's winning them. Nobody stirs interest in golf quite like Woods, though. The PGA Tour is filled with Chris DiMarcos: wonderful player, great competitor, unknown to the average viewer.

An 11th straight major winner not named Tiger simply would not have created the same buzz going into the U.S. Open.

The way Woods went 10 major tournaments before finally winning another and reaching the halfway point in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 titles makes his quest more monumental. By now, everybody should understand how Woods skewed the reality of golf with a 7-for-11 stretch in the majors from late 1999 to mid-2002, and understand what it takes to win one of these things.

In the Masters, Woods smoked everybody but DiMarco by at least seven strokes. But it's becoming clear there will always be a DiMarco or someone like him to challenge Tiger.

It's funny how Woods could win 10 tournaments since the 2002 U.S. Open and still have us talking about a drought, but that's the power of the majors. They play only four of these events a year, and they mean everything -- to the golfers and, especially, to public perception.

DiMarco was asked if Sunday's win would awaken Woods.

"I hope not," DiMarco said. "He's awake. He's won three times already this year."

But he's Tiger Woods. He's supposed to win everything, right?

In "Tiger Virtues," a book fortuitously released last week, CBS Sports announcer Bobby Clampett observed: "The whole story of the game of golf is that it's a game you cannot master. I mean, even Jack Nicklaus won only one out of every 10 tournaments or so. And that's what drew so many people to Tiger. He was dominating a game that has been the hardest in history to dominate."

So is Woods really back?

He cited "vindication" Sunday for his reworked swing, yet he also made what he labeled "absolutely poor swings" on the final three holes of regulation.

Of course, he still pulled off the chip-in birdie at No. 16, so his two closing bogeys did not cost him the tournament.

So we can take a two-dimensional view of Woods, coming out of the Masters. His swing is still in development, but he's back to winning majors. The combination should be frightening to the other players, but recent history also tells them they can compete against Tiger.

DiMarco did Sunday, and he almost won. "You just have to play your game," he said.

Woods kept saying the same thing, and now we -- and the entire PGA -- have proof that he knows what he's talking about.

At age 29, Tiger is himself again. Or at least, as he likes to say, "close."

He also said "there's a long way to go" toward 18 major titles.

Pinehurst awaits, and so does the start of the second half of the climb of Mt. Nicklaus.

(Neil Fuller can be reached at nfuller@newsargus.com.)