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Woods' class apparent even while struggling

3/2/2004 - Tiger Woods

CARLSBAD, Calif. -- Asked his opinion of opera, Mark Twain once said, "It's better than it sounds." The best way to assess Tiger Woods' 3-and-2 victory over Davis Love III in the final of the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship is that it was better than it looked.

If the measure of a professional athlete is how he competes without his best stuff, then Woods reaffirmed Sunday at the LaCosta Resort and Spa why he is in a class by himself.

He won his 40th PGA Tour event despite wielding a wilder driver than Vin Diesel. He won his second consecutive Match Play title despite making only two birdies in the afternoon round. He won a $1.2 million check even though, by his own admission, if it had been a stroke-play tournament he would still be looking for his first victory of 2004.

"It basically boils down to what my dad has always told me when it comes to match play," Woods said. "All you have to do is just be better than your opponent that day. That's it. All you have to do is win more holes than you lose. It's as simple as that. You don't have to go out there and shoot great numbers sometimes."

If there were truth and accuracy in trophies, then the robin's egg blue Wedgwood piece that Woods takes home again would have mud spattered all over it. After rain cancelled second-round play Thursday, not a pant leg in the locker room escaped the rest of the week. The golf on Sunday came off no cleaner.
Woods began the 36-hole match with a snap hook off the first tee and lost the hole. He hit a driver on the par-4 seventh that stopped behind a pine tree. His second shot caromed off a branch. He picked up after his fifth stroke, and he hadn't putted yet.

On the eighth tee, after his drive on the 569-yard par-5 landed 10 yards wide of the short grass, he stayed in position as Love, the caddies and officials started down the fairway. A dozen times, Woods brought the driver to parallel, or to the top of his backswing, back and forth, trying to figure out why he couldn't hit the ball where he aimed it.

Woods hit only two fairways on the front, and only seven in the round. A birdie at the 18th hole allowed him to get to the halfway point only 1 down. He had 35 minutes to find a Band-Aid.

"My line was a little bit off," Woods said. "My right arm was a little high. I kept trying to basically lower my right arm at address, but that didn't do any good."

Woods hustled to the range and hit about 30 balls.

"Just go back to the basics," he said. "Get your posture right, grip right, and let's just hit a few shots and let's see what happens. Let's get everything lined up, and who cares where the ball goes on the range. Let's get comfortable first."

Woods couldn't hit a fairway, and Love couldn't miss one. Yet he led only 1 up. Love had made five birdies, but he had also missed three other birdie putts inside of 10 feet. He appeared to be in control of the match, but all he had done was squander an opportunity to put away Woods.

"I can see, if I was driving all over the place, letting him get away," Love said. "But I had him right where I wanted him."

Unfortunately for Love, the most accurate thing he did in the afternoon round was point out a heckler at the fifth tee. A Tiger fan in the gallery rattled Love on the first four holes, and when the fan began yelling "No Love!" at the fifth tee, Love had him removed from the premises.

"I don't think it's just golf. I think it's our whole society," Love said. "They don't respect what other people do, don't respect your elders, don't respect other people's space, don't respect traditions or etiquette or customs. You see it in every sport. You see it walking down the street, not holding the door open for a lady when you're supposed to. It's what President Bush is fighting for, you know, traditions and etiquette and being good people."

You can't swing a dead cat or a putter on the PGA Tour without hitting a Republican. As it turned out, he would find a Kerry for President button in the locker room before he would find a birdie.

When they returned to the seventh tee, the hole that Woods botched so in the morning, the match was all square. This time, Woods hit it even farther right than he had the first time. He had 158 yards to the hole, and another pine tree in his way. The ball sat up in the tall grass. Woods pulled the yardage book out of his left pocket, checked it, took two swings, gave himself a Palmeresque hitch of the trousers and changed the tournament.

"When I hit it, I thought for sure it was over the green," Woods said, "because I had to jump on it to get it up over that tree. ... I just prayed that this thing would just hit soft somehow. It did. It hit soft. If it hits like a normal shot should have, that ball should have been in the back rough."

Woods made the 15-foot downhill birdie putt, and after 25 holes, he led Love for the first time in the match. And that was that. Woods birdied the par-5 eighth from six feet, and won the ninth when Love missed the fairway. Woods hit eight of 12 fairways in the afternoon, and closed out Love by making seven straight pars.

Woods found a swing, and all it cost him was lunch.

"I guess the most frustrating thing is we didn't have a chance to eat," he said. "We had just a quick nothing and some fruit and let's get back out there. Basically, I'm trying to tell you I'm starving right now."

There would be time to eat Sunday night, when Air Tiger left for Dubai, where he will play the European Tour event this week. It would be easy to mock the interest in golf in the Middle East, especially compared to southern California. However, shortly after 9 a.m. PT Sunday, as the first- and fifth-ranked players in the world walked onto the 10th tee in a match worth $1.2 million to the winner, the stands were less than half-full.

In a lot of ways, Woods' victory was better than it looked.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.