Sour grapes threaten bitter Tiger Woods' reputation

Published : Apr 25, 2009 00:00 IST

Tiger Woods is a better golfer than Mickelson and he will go down as the greatest player in history. He is also the most driven - coveting Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships like a child covets his best friend's toys. He will climb that mountain in the end but at what price to his reputation as a sportsman and, even more importantly, what price to his soul? By Lawrence Donegan.

No one ever said major championship golf was fair but sometimes it can be downright brutal, both for those who lose, as Kenny Perry did at Augusta National, and for those who win, such as Angel Cabrera who, when the American faltered, took advantage and secured the prized green jacket.

For Perry the brutality lay in knowing that, when he needed to produce a couple of decent shots to become the oldest major championship winner, he choked. For Cabrera it was the certainty of knowing that, if the 2009 Masters is remembered for anything, it will be the duel between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods that dominated the final round.

Paired together, playing an hour ahead of the leaders, the world's No. 1 and No. 2, like a golfing version of Frazier and Ali in Manila, swapped birdie for birdie, refusing to concede ground until someone keeled over.

In the end both lost the war to Cabrera while Woods also lost the personal battle with Mickelson - in more ways than one. Great players make great champions but, as the world No. 1 reminded us after finishing joint sixth, one place behind Mickelson, they can also be worldclass curmudgeons. "I almost won the tournament with a Band-Aid swing," Woods said.

No doubt makers of the world-famous plasters will be grateful for the unsolicited mention from the world's most famous athlete but then again they may not wish to be so closely linked with an assessment that was borderline delusional.

Admittedly his stunning teeshot at the par-three 16th did bring Woods to within one shot of the leaders but they were five holes be- hind and still to play the 13th and 15th, both par-fives and eminently birdie-able. It would have required an extraordinary collapse elsewhere for Woods to prevail. In the end he did some collapsing of his own, bogeying the last two holes to finish four shots behind the winner and one behind Mickelson.

His disappointment afterwards was understandable, his sourness was not. Asked if he had enjoyed his role in a spectacle that captured the imagination of the thousands on the Augusta premises, and millions watching on television, he was as grim as an undertaker.

"You just go about your own business. I was just trying to post an 11 under par, to shoot a 65," he replied. "I hit it so badly warming up. I was hitting quick hooks, blocks, you name it. On the very first hole I almost hit it into (the eighth) fairway - one of the worst tee shots I've ever hit starting out. I fought my swing all day."

Presumably Mickelson was just as disappointed - possibly more so given he actually did have a realistic chance of winning the tournament - but unlike Woods he was able to share in the wider excitement over what had been one of the more thrilling days of golf in years. "It was fun, a very emotional day because it's up and down, up and down, a lot of highs and lows," he said. "The crowd made the highs even higher and the moans made the lows even lower, and it was just an emotional day."

As for beating Woods by a single shot, 67 to 68 on the final round, he was careful to frame the victory in a broader context. "I'm usually on the losing end of these things so it was nice to edge it for a change." The contrast between Mickelson's apparent insouciance and Woods' evident anger was open to multiple interpretations. It was ever thus and this latest episode left those who believe the world No. 1 is infallible to argue that he was angry only because he cares so much.

By extension all conduct is seemingly acceptable, be it the constant cursing and club throwing - in which Woods has become the world-leader since his return from injury - or the childish behaviour he adopted before the final round, cold-shouldering Mickelson in an apparent attempt to make him feel uncomfortable.

There is no debate about Woods' desire but it should not be assumed he has the monopoly on ambition. Mickelson has won 36 times on the PGA tour, including three major championships; does that not indicate an extraordinary level of desire? And if that is the case, does Mickelson's reaction in the wake of Sunday's disappointment indicate nothing other than a sense of perspective and sportsmanship?

Woods is a better golfer than Mickelson (or at least his best golf is better than Mickelson's best golf) and he will go down as the greates player in history. He is also the most driven - coveting Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major championships like a child covets his best friend's toys. He will climb that mountain in the end but at what price to his reputation as a sportsman and, even more importantly, what price to his soul?

TOP FINISHERSAngel Cabrera 68-68-69-71—276Chad Campbell 65-70-72-69 — 276Kenny Perry 68-67-70-71 — 276Shingo Katayama 67-73-70-68 — 278Phil Mickelson 73-68-71-67 — 279John Merrick 68-74-72-66 — 280Steve Flesch 71-74-68-67 — 280Tiger Woods 70-72-70-68 — 280Steve Stricker 72-69-68-71 — 280Hunter Mahan 66-75-71-69 — 281Sean O’Hair 68-76-68-69 — 281Jim Furyk 66-74-68-73 — 281© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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