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Not at his best, Tiger is still good enough

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A tiger lurks in the brush to apprehend its prey. Quick, smooth and strong is what makes the tiger the peer to the lion as king of the jungle.

Tiger Woods lurks o­n the beautiful greens and fairways trying to subdue his quarry. True to his namesake, he too is quick, strong, smooth and generally acknowledged as the most dangerous golfer in the world.

Recently, at the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Georgia, Woods ate up his challengers, in particular Chris DiMarco, whom he defeated in sudden-death overtime o­n an 18th hole replay.  The victory was Woods fourth green jacket and first major tournament he has won in 10 tries. He last won a Professional Golf Association Major in 2002 at the U.S. Open.

Always the perfectionist, Woods has been tinkering with his swing, his driver and the ball . . . looking for golf nirvana.

Woods told a group of reporters that he knows he has been battling the past couple years working o­n his game while making some changes. It was nice to get back there again," he said with emotion clearly flowing.

In his search for continued personal enhancement, Woods fell into a slump - for him at least. No matter, he was still ranked no. 1 until Vijay Singh unseated him last year.

Even in victory Woods’ weakness, his erratic play off the tee, still shone brightly. His driving accuracy has wilted to bottom feeder position in the PGA ranks. He hits the fairways o­nly half the time and now ranks 157th out of 181 players.

But that is the beauty of the Tiger: even playing less than his best he is still the best.

Many made a big deal out of the fact Woods has rang up goose eggs in recent majors, and even in victory they focused o­n the obscure probability that Woods will not win the Grand Slam the Masters, U.S. Open British Open and PGA consecutively.

I say it will be almost impossible to do that again, although he's  already done it o­nce. What is happening o­n the PGA Tour is that the level of competition has upped and his peers are rising to the Woods challenge.

Some decided to focus o­n the fact DiMarco caught Woods over the last four holes, and used that as proof that Tigers still has problems. How totally differently people watching the same event can see it.

“What I saw was a player playing less than his best, but calling o­n all his guile to gut out a major win over a talented and game opponent,” said DiMarco.

Struggling to stay afloat, Woods did the impossible o­n the 16th hole, chipping in a 30-footer that appeared to take a 90-degree angle to the hole as it dropped through for a birdie. He bogeys the final two holes and DiMarco caught him for a tie at the end of regulation.

Woods sank a 15-foot birdie putt o­n the first playoff hole and the Masters' green jacket was his again.

The bogeys and missed fairways did not matter, just like with Magic Johnson, Carl Lewis, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Reggie Jackson, when it's winning time the best become the best and Tiger has proven he belongs in that winning-time company.

With the win Woods now finds himself in exclusive company. He has ascended to a tie for third place with Ben Hogan o­n the all-time majors won list with nine titles. o­nly Jack Nicklaus (18) and Walter Hagen (11) are ahead of Tiger. As far as the most Masters won, Woods now finds himself tied for second place with Arnold Palmer with four titles. Nicklaus leads with six green jackets.

Is Woods more culturally cerebral than we give him credit for? When Phil Mickelson put the green jacket o­n Tiger at the Masters ceremony, he had o­n black pants, red shirt and a green jacket - ironic or indeed planned?

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com

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