Sunday marked the end of the 69th Masters, which was incidentally the “last” for top dog Jack Nicklaus and yet it was a day for underdogs. Amateur Ryan Moore, a senior at UNLV, had a huge day, shooting a 70 to give him a total of 287 — a score that would have won him the tournament in 1954 and 1956 over champions Sam Snead and Jack Burke, respectively. It was not easy like Sunday morning for leader Chris DiMarco, but Sunday afternoon was all his as he came from behind to force a playoff. In the end, however, it was the underdog who prevailed. Yes, rewind the clock to 1997 because for the first time in years, Tiger was the underdog. To DiMarco’s credit, it’s never easy to come back against a tough opponent; it’s even harder to come back when that tough opponent is yourself.
On Sunday, Tiger defeated more than just an exceptional and aggressive Chris DiMarco. He beat the critics who, after a small hibernation following his back-to-back Masters wins in 2001 and 2002, came roaring back as they had when Tiger slumped following his 1997 win. Trading a few years of dominance in order to readjust his swing, Tiger once again had to face the dark side of the limelight, where the has-beens and never-was’s sit, waiting to pounce on the newly fallen. For Tiger, the last two years have been major-less. In 2003 and 2004 he had only six combined wins on the Tour and two top-10 finishes in a major; it was the first time in his young career that he’d gone two years without winning a major. Critics often marked the talented Tiger for not being entertaining enough, charismatic enough or even controversial enough when it came to life off the golf course; after 2004, they were slamming him for not being good enough. With all this adversity on his back, by the time he hit the playoff Sunday, with all the momentum on Chris “nothing to lose” DiMarco’s side, Tiger was carrying too much baggage to be the favorite.
I know, I know, it seems a little preposterous to dog Tiger under anyone, especially under DiMarco who, despite an impressive performance at last year’s PGA Championship, has never won a major and has only a total of four top-10 finishes on the Tour since 2001. However, the toughest part about having the early success Tiger has enjoyed is often figuring out how to duplicate it year after year. When downslides occur, like Tiger’s 2003-2004 slump, competitors find themselves playing not to win, but rather scrambling to escape defeat. As the sun began to set Sunday on Augusta’s 18th green, you could see it in his face and in his demeanor; Tiger was playing not to lose.
Of course, yesterday morning, the critics were up bright and early to criticize Tiger for blowing his three-stroke lead over DiMarco. Sure, he had won, but it wasn’t convincing and it was no 12-stroke blowout like in ’97. They said Tiger usually doesn’t blow leads and choke in pressure situations, so clearly he’s not what he used to be. I say, if anything, Sunday’s win proves Tiger is better. He keeps having years like 1998 and 2004 following banner years and with all the disappointment and doubts, he keeps coming back, following through, getting better.
In the world of doubters and nay-sayers, there is rarely a quiet moment, and while Tiger’s victory would appear as the perfect remedy to stop the clicking of their fingers on the keyboards, there are already those who would rather focus on how Tiger was almost caught and how, for the first time in his young career, he almost relinquished a lead. However, it can’t be forgotten that Tiger had fewer missed opportunities than DiMarco. More than his play, it was Tiger’s resolve that won him his fourth Masters. On Sunday, Tiger was so masterful and human that he may silence critics for good. Watching the dichotomy between his historic putt on the 16th and his bogeys that ensued on the 17th and 18th greens, followed by his inevitable putt in the first playoff hole to win was like watching his career as it’s gone from ethereal to human to legendary. That’s what makes legends, after all: The ability they have to overcome their human weaknesses. The same comparison could be made for DiMarco’s missed opportunity to birdie on the 18th as he watched his ball get teased around the circumference of the cup only to be rejected.
Like “The Great One,” and “The Great Bambino” and MJ, superstars who need not be identified by their full names, Tiger falls into a category of mastery — one that my Uncle Ace used to say only comes around once every hundred years or so, depending on the sport. Instead of picking Tiger apart or analyzing what he could have done better, I’d suggest the critics enjoy the quiet perfection in his struggles that will ultimately make his career more memorable and, of course, legendary. If they wanted more excitement and drama from Tiger, on Sunday they got it.