Tiger Woods is the best golfer since Jack Nicklaus because he is the most intelligent golfer to follow in the Bear's footprints. Woods won the 66th US Masters, donning the green jacket for the third time, because the revamped Augusta National rewarded not just brawn but brainpower.
As befitting the world No 1, Woods had all the physical attributes to cope with a course extended by 285 yards, more so than most. But what separates Tiger from his peers is how he goes about his job. Mentally, he was further in front of his rivals than the three strokes that lay behind him and Retief Goosen in second place.
The philosophy behind the updating of Augusta National to cope with the greater distances by gained by the modern generation of big hitters brought it back to what Bobby Jones's course was always meant to be: the ultimate mind game. "This course is more of a mental test now than it was when I first won here, because of the lengthening," Woods said. The weather added to the problems. "You had to hit a lot of different shots into the greens, especially with the course being so wet. We had all kinds of different lies out there, bad lies, good lies, mud balls, non-mud balls, fliers.
"Some of the fairways had been cut, some had not. Every green seemed a different speed and you still had the traditional tough Augusta pins. It was so hard to get the ball close. The golf course was playing so difficult and then the wind kept coming up and dying down.
"You had to control your arm speed and control your angle of descent into the ball. I hit a lot of weird clubs but the shots I played were the best I could have played at the time. I may not have executed them properly but my intentions were good." Take the par-five 13th and 15th holes. At the former, Ernie Els went in Rae's creek twice on the way to an eight. "I got greedy on the second shot and tried to cut off too much of the corner," he said.
Woods said: "I could have knocked it on in two with a two-iron but that wasn't the play with a hooking lie off the pine needles and a three-shot lead." He laid up and made par.
Vijay Singh also found the water at the 13th but saved par, only then he twice pitched into the pond in front of the green at the 15th and took a nine. Woods laid up from the trees, and then pitched to a foot for a birdie.
"Besides Jack Nicklaus, Tiger is the best player," Goosen said. "Give him a couple more years and he will be even better than Jack. He's hitting the ball so well and with great imagination. No one put pressure on him. I think he was cruising in. He wasn't taking any chances. He didn't have to do anything but par in on the back nine."
Tiger's closest challengers were among the form players entering the event. But Goosen, Els, Singh and Sergio Garcia all finished over par in the final round. Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal and Padraig Harrington all improved with rounds of 71, the same score as Woods, who finished 12 under, four strokes outside his winning score a year ago and six outside the record he set in 1997.
By winning back-to-back Masters, the tournament for the third time and a seventh major – at only 26 – Woods further aligned himself with the game's greatest players. Specially, only Arnold Palmer with four and Nicklaus with six have won more often at Augusta.
"It's pretty neat to be able to have my name mentioned with some of the golfing greats, especially at this tournament. This tournament is obviously very historic and very special to all the players. This is the tournament we really want to win." Woods felt that owning two jackets already – something only Olazabal of the contenders could also say – was a comfort. "It was a big relief knowing no matter what, I'm still a champion here. Then, I know what it takes to win. I'd been in the final group twice before. I knew how to handle my emotions."
A year ago, Woods became the first player ever to hold all four major titles by winning the Masters. It was a slam but not grand enough for some people. Now Tiger has the chance to win all four in the calendar year.
Woods was slightly pointed when he said: "Well, I've done all four in a row before but it would be nice to do four in a row in the same year." The most significant statistics were that Tiger topped the greens in regulation chart, with Goosen second. Woods, as he has at every one of the last six majors he has won – in a scary 10 starts – spoke afterwards about how he feels a bigger lift when he holes a difficult par-putt than when he makes a birdie. He is probably the only leading player to think that way.
Harrington, who tied fifth for the third time in a major, was delighted with how he played, while after a poor start to the season Colin Montgomerie finished among the 17 players under par for the week. Nick Faldo also finished at one under, proving the 44-year-old is not yet done and dusted as a major player, while Adam Scott confirmed he is one for the future with his first major top-10 finish. The young Australian shares Tiger's coach. Sharing his mind would help even more.
TIGER WOODS' SEVEN MAJOR WINS
1997 MASTERS 70-66-65-69 = 270 (–18)
1999 USPGA 70-67-68-72 = 277 (–11)
2000 US OPEN 65-69-71-67 = 272 (–12)
2000 OPEN 67-66-67-69 = 269 (–19)
2000 USPGA 66-67-70-67 = 270 (–18)
2001 MASTERS 70-66-68-68 = 272 (–16)
2002 MASTERS 70-69-66-71 = 276 (–12)