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AUGUSTA, Ga. - Tiger Woods must have been as astonished as anyone that he found himself in a playoff for the 69th Masters championship yesterday. But he knew what to do when he got there.
After finishing regulation bogey-bogey, failing to capitalize on one of those shots for the ages when he chipped in for birdie on No. 16 to take a two-shot lead, Woods made two perfect shots and then jammed in a 15-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole, No. 18, to beat a game Chris DiMarco and win for the fourth time at Augusta National Golf Club.
The legendary Arnold Palmer also won four green jackets. Only one man, six-time champ Jack Nicklaus, has earned more and the 29-year-old Woods is now halfway to Nicklaus' record 18 professional major championships.
"I hadn't thought about that," Woods said. "I guess I'm halfway. There's still a long way to go. It won't be easy."
Neither was his march to the title yesterday, although there was little reason to expect such a struggle.
Woods went 66-65 in the middle two rounds and, upon resumption of third-round play early yesterday morning, turned a four-shot deficit into a three-shot lead.
He then started his final round birdie-birdie and it appeared another of those patented Tiger routs was on.
And then it wasn't.
"There were still 16 holes left," said DiMarco, who also birdied No. 2 and refused to be discouraged. "I just had to stay in the moment, keep hitting quality golf shots, and take advantage of my opportunities."
DiMarco was back to within two shots at the turn, and closed to one when he ran in a 35-foot putt for birdie at No. 11.
To say Woods had a look of fear would not be close to accurate. Never fear. Goodness, no.
But there was certainly concern, maybe even a little confusion, written on his face as he traipsed through Amen Corner and then down into the hollow of the back nine at the National.
Where had his game gone? He was so remarkable in those two middle rounds. His lead had been daunting. How was he letting DiMarco, regardless of the challenger's grit and tenacity, back into this? A final-round lead in a major, in almost any tournament, had always been a mortal lock. The other guy always blinks, right?
But, suddenly, Tiger couldn't hit a fairway. The greens had shrunk into slippery postage stamps. Sand was everywhere.
"I hit some beautiful shots and then I hit some bad ones," Woods said. "Chris grinded his way around and fought me. I expected that. He's one of those guys who gets in your face and fights you tooth and nail."
DiMarco was still down a shot when the final twosome reached the par-3 16th hole. Trevor Immelman, playing in the group ahead, had just aced it and the atmosphere was electric. But DiMarco hit a rather pedestrian shot well below the hole and Woods was long and left, just beyond a greenside bunker and almost against the second cut of rough some 30-plus feet from the pin.
"He showed great imagination," DiMarco said of Woods' ensuing chip. "You expect the unexpected in this game. Unfortunately, it's not unexpected when he does it."
Woods played his chip well above and left of the hole, saw it catch the ridge, take a hard right turn and funnel toward the cup. It stopped rolling and teetered precariously on the lip, then disappeared, drawing a roar from the throng around the green that literally shook the ground.
"Under the circumstances, it was one of the best shots I've ever hit," Woods said. "If Chris makes his [birdie] putt and I make bogey, it's a whole different ballgame. I remember the shot Davis [Love III] made from back there a few years back, but I've really never practiced it. I mean, you're not supposed to be over there.
"I just wanted to lay it up the hill and feed it down there and, hopefully, have a makable putt. All of a sudden it looked pretty good, and all of a sudden it looked really good, then it looked like there was no way it couldn't go, and suddenly it did. It was pretty sweet."
But it was not definitive. Not when Woods followed with bogeys on each of the next two holes, driving wildly to the right on No. 17, then finding a bunker to the right of the 18th green and failing to get up and down.
DiMarco, meanwhile, made a testy five-footer at No. 17 and a six-footer to tie with another par putt on the home hole. It translated into a final-round 68 to Woods' 71.
For the first time ever, a Masters playoff - it was the seventh - started not on No. 10 but by replaying the 18th hole. Woods cut his 3-wood drive into the middle of the fairway and DiMarco was in good shape along the right edge. But as was the case moments earlier at the end of regulation, DiMarco's second shot failed to carry the steep incline at the front of the green and spun back off.
"Just a smidge more on both of them," DiMarco said wistfully.
Woods hit his approach from 165 yards, flew it right over the flag and set up the winning putt from 15 feet.
The win paid $1,260,000, but a very emotional Woods indicated it was worth far more in another regard. He dedicated the victory to his father, 73-year-old Earl Woods, who is in ill health.
"Every time I've been lucky enough to win here, my dad has been there to give me a big hug," Tiger said. "He's not here this time. He hasn't been well this year. He made the trip to Augusta but he wasn't able to come out to the club all week. Maybe this will give him a little hope, a reason to keep fighting."
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.33.47909 -81.97531