04/08/09 — Top athletes have 'clutch' gene

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Top athletes have 'clutch' gene

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on April 8, 2009 1:46 PM

Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, John Elway and Wayne Gretzky all had it -- the ability to stare pressure in the eye and easily deliver in the clutch.

Perhaps no golfer in history has created more clutch performances than the man simply known as "Tiger."

Woods' outing two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational ended on the high of a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole on the final day. His putt resulted in a one-stroke victory over Sean O'Hair.

Tiger rallied from five shots back to match his largest career comeback. His putt was eerily similar to the 25-foot putt he made on Bay Hill's No. 18 for a one-stroke victory a year ago.

As Woods walked up the 18th, there was an undeniable confidence on his face. It was the look of a man who seemed to know another magical moment was waiting to unfold.

O'Hair looked like a nervous five-year-old on the first day of school. It was the look of a competitor looking eye-to-eye with greatness and being left feeling utterly helpless.

Not only did the enormity of his own putt appear to be weighing on O'Hair, but the realization that victory was being yanked from his grasp by the sport's greatest clutch performer seemed to be racing through his mind.

Woods will be in pursuit of his fifth green jacket when the 73rd Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger captured his first Masters championship in 1997 by 12 strokes at the age of 21, but hasn't won the event since 2005.

He capped his first win at Augusta with a testy four-foot putt to conclude the Masters' lowest score of 270. Woods completed the 72-hole event without a single three-putt.

In 2001, Tigers' second Masters title capped the "Tiger Slam" -- the sweep of all four major tournaments. Masters chairmen Hootie Johnson called it "the greatest achievement in modern-day golf."

Woods created a pair of hair-raising moments at Augusta in 2005.

Tiger's tee shot on the 16th hole of the final round left him facing a difficult chip shot he had to aim to the left of the pin. His chip, aided by a hill in the green, began rolling toward the cup and momentarily paused before falling in as a chorus of cheers erupted from the gallery.

Bogeys on 17 and 18 sent Woods into a playoff with Chris DiMarco. Tiger's 15-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole put a dramatic ending to his pursuit of a fourth green jacket.

Despite not having won The Masters since 2005 Woods has been on the doorstep the last three years. He's finished second in each of his last two trips to Augusta and went home third in 2006.

Should Tiger find himself in contention again Sunday history is certainly on his side. The 34-year-old Woods is 31-6 when leading a tour event after 36 holes and 44-3 when leading after 54 holes. When entering the final round of a major tournament with at least a share of the lead, Woods is 14-0.

Like clutch performers before him, Woods lives for the big moment. He doesn't shy away from pressure and he seems to shine brightest on the biggest stage.

Should a similar moment arise this weekend at Augusta, Woods may be left grasping more than a green jacket. He'll be clinging to the pressure that comes with winning it.