Masters awaits, giving Tiger reason to celebrate

Tiger Woods has some work to do before the Masters begins next week. His caddie could use some practice, too.

You would think they would have it all worked out by now. They've done it so many times it should be routine.

But there they were in the gloaming (I'll explain this word later) in Florida, engaged in an awkward dance of sorts on the 18th green as a bemused Arnold Palmer looked on. The fist pump was fine, but when it came time to hug and give each other high fives, neither player nor caddie seemed quite sure which should come first.

Arnie couldn't help because, in his day, celebrating a win meant tipping your hat to the crowd and shaking your playing partner's hand. Players didn't give high fives, and hugging your caddie would do nothing but get a lot of tongues wagging at the next tour stop.

I bring this up because Augusta National is a place Woods has done quite a bit of celebrating, and not all of it well. Case in point was the curling chip on the 16th green in 2005 when he and Stevie Williams ran around looking like a couple of computer nerds who had just scored their first dates.

I also bring it up because right now there's not a lot more Woods needs to work on other than his dance moves and his victory speech at the Masters.

His left knee seems as good as new, and he's hitting the ball perhaps better than he ever has. He can still make more putts when it really matters than anyone who ever played the game, and his Sunday glare remains the most intimidating look in sports since Michael Jordan was sticking his tongue out (a move Woods imitated on Sunday, by the way).

And, yes, as you may have noticed at Bay Hill, he hasn't lost his flair for the dramatic.

Nothing, of course, was going to match his last win, when he hobbled his way to an overtime victory over Rocco Mediate to win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But if Woods needed to make a statement that he was back, coming from five shots behind and sinking a birdie putt as flashes went off everywhere in the near darkness wasn't a bad way to do it.

Once again, the country was riveted. Once again, Woods delivered in a way that only he can.

NBC got a break when rain earlier in the day forced the conclusion into prime time, but it was Woods and Woods alone who drew a bigger television audience than watched either of the last two majors played without him. Sean O'Hair is a nice enough guy, but he was merely a role player in this drama, and his role was to be just good enough to make Woods seem even better.

Mission accomplished, and now Woods heads to Augusta fresh off his 66th PGA Tour win and in search of his fifth green jacket. At the age of 33 he's now within a handful of major wins of passing Jack Nicklaus and there aren't many who have watched him play who don't already consider him the greatest golfer ever.

Count me among them, and I've been along for the ride since I walked the fairways with Woods in his first pro win in Las Vegas in 1996. I've had a front row ticket to 13 of his 14 major championship wins, and I've seen him hit shots and do things that just didn't seem possible.

More importantly, he brings a presence and star power to a sport that has sorely lacked both ever since Nicklaus and Palmer faded into the background. Woods transcends the sport, bringing eyeballs to television screens and fans to tournaments who don't know the difference between a bunker shot and a putt.

That's great for golf, which muddled along in Woods' absence only to be invigorated again by his return. But it's not so great for the Sean O'Hairs of the world, who rise up to challenge Woods only to get knocked down time and time again.

And it certainly doesn't bode well for the future of the sport because there will be a time when Woods is no longer playing and a lot of people will be no longer watching. We got a taste of it during his forced hiatus from the game and it wasn't pretty, though Padraig Harrington tried his best to make it interesting.

Golf was a niche sport before Woods arrived on the scene, and it will become one once again when he leaves. He gives people a reason to care, something the mostly robotic group of players who make up the PGA Tour can't even come close to doing.

Which, as I promised, brings us back to gloaming. It's a word golf writers tend to use when they're searching for something dramatic to describe the time of day when light is fading and darkness is about to envelop everything.

You know, precisely the time Tiger Woods decides to call it quits.

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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