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A 2001 Retrospective Part 1

Tiger Woods provided two indelible imprints which define the 2001 season.
First, when he lifted his right fist at the 72nd hole of the Masters, the ball inches from the cup, it signified the completion of a journey into previously untouched territory. The realization, as a fan and an observer, that we had seen one of the greatest feats in sports history, while mostly unsurprising, still hit with stunning force.
Secondly, the still photograph showing Tiger at The American Express Championship in St. Louis with his hand over his face in disbelief upon learning of the Sept. 11th attacks captured perfectly the utter horror and shock we all felt on the worst day many of us have ever known. The catastrophic event put a somber chill on all inappropriate exultation. And the glorification of athletic heroes just didn't feel right any longer, no disrespect to Tiger or any of the other worthy champions from the season past.
From there, any attempt to assess the year in golf is done so with tempered enthusiasm, for while I still love the game, it's very difficult to look at 2001 in any context other than Sept. 11th. That said, let's slip back to January and the perfect island escape, Maui. That's the sweet reward for winning a tournament in the previous year. And with trance-inducing views high atop the Pacific, a room at the Ritz, your family by your side and those caressing nighttime breezes, it's easy to see where a professional might allow himself to think for a spell, 'I've made it.'
At Kapalua, Tiger talk was, as usual, pervasive. He hadn't won in the busy two months he customarily undertakes to close out his year. Of course, that's like suggesting to a perfect-game pitcher that he could've struck our more batters. The year 2000 was probably the greatest ever. There, I said it. Oh, and I can see the e-mails pouring in now: 'Lerner's got his head up Tiger's shag bag.' Whatever. Fact is, 2000 asked Tiger to churn an unbelievable amount of energy, physically and emotionally.
But in his mind, the job wasn't done at the end of 2000. In a way, the 2000 season for Tiger would extend to April and Augusta. Tiger, naturally, paid little attention to the lingering, mindless chatter over his so-called winless skid. His mantra was very simple. Gear for Augusta. One mission. Win the jacket. Make history. Four in a row.
Not leaving anything to chance, Woods established his imposing presence well before the golf world landed beneath the shade of the old oak tree at Augusta. At Bay Hill, Woods caught a good break off the 18th tee when his ball hit a fan. He then smoked a titanic 5-iron over the water to 15 feet, needing birdie to beat Lefty (Phil Mickelson), who was in the house after a crackling good up-and-down at the last for 66. You need to be reminded that Woods made three? Tiger, with the gallery ready to pop, keeping the lid on the pot? Not a chance.
On to Ponte Vedra, where Woods made a putt that'll be replayed as much as any putt since Justin Leonard's Ryder Cup Howitzer in '99. And man, the one Woods made had more curls in it than a Dolly Parton wig. There seemed to be no limit to the young man's magic. Two in a row. Bay Hill. The Players. Woods was certainly enjoying the view on his majestic train ride to history.
The moment was now before him. Woods, even as good as he is, knew the opportunity at four straight might not ever come his way again, as hard as majors are to win and as keen as the competition is. His game face on those walks from the clubhouse at Augusta to the practice putting green just before his tee times at the Masters was legendary, like watching Russell Crowe stride into battle in the movie 'Gladiator.' Eyes straight ahead and slightly down. Shoulders angled forward like a defensive back. The burst from the locker room with body guards at each flank. The pace is brisk, purposeful. The aura's unmistakeable. You watch and think, 'There goes a guy who's intent on taking care of business.'
From the start, Woods seemed to slowly - like a boa - squeeze hole after hole out of the tournament and make it his. Three shots stand out: the knockdown approach he drew like Rembrandt into the 11th, almost running it in with very cool sidespin; the slingshot 3-wood he launched at No. 13 just after he'd made bogey at 12 on Sunday; and, of course, the putt which sealed his date with destiny at the end. Four in a row. And they just added some 300 yards to Augusta National.
After Augusta, Woods tacked on a third straight Memorial. Memorial, when it is soft, is as well-tailored to Tiger's game of 'hit it high and hit it deep' as any course he's ever played.
From there, Tiger fought his way through three majors where he wasn't in real contention. And just when it seemed he might be out of gas, he landed in a seven-hole, sudden-death classic with Jim Furyk at Firestone, yet another vintage layout Woods seems to own. He survived all manner of outrageous Furyk haymakers and won for the fifth and final official time in 2001.
His predictable Grand Slam victory in Hawaii and then his final round statement - there'll be more of the same in 2002 - at his own Williams World Challenge capped a year which, while not better than the best year ever (2000), was better than all but one or two in the last quarter century (Nick Price in '94 and Tom Watson in '80).
In short, Tiger Woods in 2001 did nothing to dispel the notion that he may well be, either now or someday in the future, the greatest golfer who ever lived.
Has the gap closed? It depends upon how you look at the situation. True, Tiger won just one major this year, compared to three of four in 2000. Other guys - David Duval and David Toms come to mind - tasted major success and that bodes well for their confidence going forward. Tiger, they proved, doesn't have a monopoly on glory.
Yet, ask yourself a couple questions: Do you see Toms, for example, winning, say, three majors? Certainly conceivable. Do you see Toms winning 22 majors? Basically inconceivable. Now, do you see Tiger winning 22 majors? Highly possible. So again, ask yourself the question, has the gap really closed? The year 2002 will offer more intriguing clues.
Part 2, on Friday, will look at some of the other stories to come out of 2001, including the rise of other, even younger stars like Charles Howell III and Ty Tryon.