AUGUSTA, Ga. — Two seats to the left on row H in the media center at Augusta National, the man who once covered the Oakland A’s referred to Tiger Woods as “Eckersley like.”
The comparison of pitcher Dennis Eckersley and Woods comes down to this: Given the lead, deal done. These days, the comparable catchphrase of football and basketball coaches is “finish.”
A starting pitcher for most of the first half of his 24-year career, Eckersley saved more than 400 games as a relief pitcher in his final 12 years and punched his ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Woods is 14-1 in golf’s majors when entering the final round with at least a share of the lead. At his best, Woods never missed a putt that mattered. The winner of 18 majors, Jack Nicklaus had that ability to deliver whatever shot was needed to discourage his pursuers. He had sole possession of the lead after 54 holes of eight major tournaments and was 8-0.
Fair or not, Bubba Watson will be measured against that standard this weekend. Five birdies in a row on the back nine helped mold a 68 that put him at 137. His minus-7 is three shots clear of 42-year-old John Senden, who has won twice in a dozen years on the PGA Tour and at least four clear of everybody else. With the greens already slick and sunshine predicted to increase the firmness of putting surfaces, it will be difficult for any pursuers to catch Watson unless the lefty cooperates.
Woods’ absence this week does not detract from the special status of The Masters, nor does it mean the winner’s green jacket somehow means less. Even if Woods had been in the field, there is no reason to believe that driving down Magnolia Lane would resurrect the game that intimidated so many and he would be in position to win his first major since June 2008.
But, the recent surgery on Woods’ back, combined with the Sunday miscues of some of the top-ranked players in the world during the past few weeks, does raise a question about others’ ability to close.
Beginning with the first Sunday in March:
• Rory McIlroy went from bunker to water on the 70th hole and lost in a playoff.
• Adam Scott followed a 62 with a so-so performance but was still tied for the lead with nine holes to go, tried to wish home a couple of putts, and lost.
• Matt Kuchar was tied for the lead with nine holes to play, but made three bogeys and Steve Bowditch won with a final-round 76.
• Kuchar was labeled ridiculous, restrained and resilient while playing the 18th hole last week with a one-shot lead. Needing only to hit his patented fade to the right side of the green and two-putt, he went left in the water, evoking a “Golly, Matty.” From 70 yards, he got up and in for a tying bogey but lost in a playoff to Matt Jones.
On opening day of The Masters, Scott, Kuchar, and McIlroy were Nos. 2, 7, and 9 in the world.
Before fitting Watson for his second green jacket in three years, note the Kuchar-Louis Oosthuizen demonstration Friday of wild one-hole swings that are possible at Augusta National.
Teeing off on No. 15 shortly before 1 p.m., Oosthuizen had a tournament-leading red four by his name and Kuchar had made four birdies in seven holes to get to a red one.
Kuchar’s second kerplunked into the pond in front of the green and Oosthuizen’s knee jerk was to knock his second 30 yards over the green. Kuchar’s fourth stopped 12 feet behind the hole and he made it for par.
Oosty’s flop shot plopped onto the green 20 feet short of the hole and eventually drowned near Kuchar’s ball. His fifth finished 40 feet past the hole and he had to make a 3-footer for eight.
Both headed for 16 tee at red one.
Harry King is a sports columnist. Email: HLeonK42@gmail.com.