James Lawton: Glimmer of genius not enough to rescue Tiger

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The Independent Online

History applied some rare pressure here yesterday on Tiger Woods, the man who was anointed the game's best player so long ago. It said that he may be great, yes, indeed the greatest, but could he win hard and mean in his sport's equivalent of a street fight?

Could he come in at the end of the 72nd Masters in a way that he had never done before? It was, without any disrespect to the superb application of the frontrunner of four days, South African Trevor Immelman, by far the most compelling question on a day of capricious wind and the sharp, bright Georgian sunlight playing in the pines.

No, he couldn't, partly because the 28-year-old born in the high winds of the Cape country had a lead, a knowledge of the wind, and no slinking disposition to disappear – and because the Tiger apparently cannot still not profit from the waiting game.

But if he couldn't bring a late intrusion of unique brilliance he could leave a few footsteps. He could make the most difficult hole on the course, the 11th, look like child's play. He could sink a 75-foot putt of mesmerising quality and, who knows, if he had sunk a six-footer on the 13th, after exquisite recoveries on the 12th and from a poor tee shot on the exit from Amen Corner, he might finally have proved that he could win anyway he liked.

But no, he couldn't, not yesterday, and if the Tiger's genius is about taking hold of a tournament and turning every phase of it into an expression of his dominance, it is still genius and we saw at least a glimmer of it in a defeat he took bitterly.

There had always been just one certainty as Woods attempted to do something he had never done before, something Gary Player did in 1978, Jack Nicklaus in 1986, and, not to forget another serial major title winner, Nick Faldo, in 1996. If the Tiger didn't manage to win his first major coming from behind – after 13 wins and four Masters' Green Jackets – no one could say the challenge hadn't pushed him to his very limits.

With every nuance of body language, he spoke of bone-deep frustration after losing a shot in the high wind tearing across the fourth fairway – and then, on the next hole, seeing an exquisite uphill putt finish just one turn of the ball away from a sensational birdie.

As Immelman threw a shot away on the first hole, Woods had never seemed more intent on removing the slur that he can only perform the kill in optimum circumstances built up over days of relentless mastery.

The suggestion that there is indeed something missing in his competitive armoury is, quite plainly an increasing source of irritation. Despite the growing assurance of frontrunner Immelman in the dusk at the end of the third round, Woods was scornful of the idea that the gap of six strokes which he faced yesterday morning was unsurmountable.

He snapped, "I put myself right back in the tournament. As I was saying before, this is the highest score I could have shot today and still had a chance and if I have a few more putts go in on Sunday I'm right there, but I'm right there anyway. You want to win the Masters, period. Doesn't really matter how you do it, as long as you do it." He explored every corner of his capacity to do that, but plainly it wasn't his day, no more than it had been his week. The trouble, say his critics, is that Tiger apparently knows only one way to do it. He can pummel the lights out of the opposition, tear up the course, and treat strolling home as a right rather than a challenge.

For Tiger "moving day" has become virtually status quo day and given the brilliance of his play on Saturday, and not least his imperious rescuing of par with a magnificent drive through an avenue of trees and from a bed of pine needles on the 18th hole, you could understand the somewhat sour demeanour he took away from the course on Saturday night. When he returned his determination blazed like the Georgian sunshine. But there would no easy breakthrough, his birdie at the sixth merely wiping away the slip two holes earlier.

Yesterday was a fresh opportunity to confound the belief that if he hasn't slaughtered the field at some point over the first three days, a tournament is almost certain to throw up another winner, and one quite often as obscure as last year's Green Jacket wearer Zach Johnson, who confessed to talk show host David Letterman, "Sometimes even I have to ask who is Zach Johnson." Immelman, however, is not likely to disappear from the front of the game so quickly. He showed fine spirit and great technical resilience.

The chances of Tiger achieving his breakthrough were increased somewhat by the swirl of the wind ruffling the dogwoods, but they were made to look no more comfortable by the briefest examination of the feats he had to rival or better if he was to get even close to his fifth Green Jacket.

In 1978 Player made up six strokes with a superb 64 to overcome Rod Funseth, Hubert Green and a Tom Watson whose own late challenge was sturdy enough with a 69. Eight years later the 46-year-old Nicklaus put in one of the ultimate late winning charges with a 65 that brought all witnesses present on Amen Corner to their feet.

It wasn't so much a golf victory as a celebration of enduring life, and some frequenters of local gospel halls were stunned by the passion created by the blond, middle-aged man from Columbus, Ohio.

Ten years on, Faldo was presiding over the collapse of the tragically unfulfilled Greg Norman, but if many saw the Englishman, who was picking up his third Green Jacket as not much more than the witness of a bad car crash, they forget that Faldo did quite a bit to apply some pressure of his own. He shot a 67 against Norman's 78.

When Woods came to the first tee yesterday such history did not appear to be weighing too heavily on his shoulders. He was told that a wind was howling on Amen Corner. That might just be his opportunity. Still another one. But he had announced so many in the past it was maybe understandable that his lips were tight – and somewhat pursed.

His mood lightened only briefly with the stupendous putt on 11 and the reminders, through 12 and to the moment when he failed, on the 13th green to pull the trigger on the perfect opportunity to stage an ambush that would have taken him into the company of Player, Nicklaus and Faldo. Then he was thrust back into the reality he still, for all the virtuosity, all the times when he transcends all those who ever played the game, cannot shake.

Maybe he will just have to settle for being the greatest frontrunner golf has ever seen. Trevor Immelman, no question, shows a certain flair for the job but he was merely saying hello to history.

The Tiger, rather crossly, is haggling over the details, one of the more ironic ones being that he finished with the most nonchalantly struck birdie.