Honestly, what the hell just happened?


- Tiger Woods, Augusta National Golf Club, April 8, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Tiger Woods made some personal history yesterday at the Masters. He blinked.

For the first time in his professional life, Woods held the lead on the final day at a major championship and did not win. Twelve times before this, he had led on Sunday and won. Twelve times. Twelve wins. It was a stunning record of invincibility, one normally reserved for characters in comic books. Now it is over.

And whether he meant it or not, Vaughn Taylor might have put it for everyone when he said, "Tiger has an amazing record in majors. It's nice to see him give one up. If he's not Superman, who is he? Superman's brother, maybe."

Taylor was paired yesterday with his unknown friend, Zach Johnson, who won the tournament with a 1-over-par 289, tied for the highest winning score ever at the Masters. Taylor was a little unclear about whose cape was whose, but it matters little. The key words were, "It's nice to see him give one up."

That is how everyone in the sport will see it now that Johnson has won and Woods has finished in a tie for second place, two shots behind. That is how everyone will view it because that is how everyone in the sport views everything, through the prism of Tiger.

He has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major, and he was tied for second going into the final round yesterday, so that remains intact. But he had never relinquished a Sunday lead, either, and that streak is now broken.

So he gave one up. The aura is now incomplete.

The microphones often catch Woods, the exhortations and the imprecations, the verbal manifestations of a superior will. And so it was on the 17th fairway, where he finally lost the tournament for good.

One statement summed up a week.

"Honestly, what the hell just happened?" Woods said.

The question was offered in what seemed to be both anger and bewilderment. He asked it after putting his ball in the bunker in front of the 17th green. The thing was over, right there, and the words were Tiger's final gasp.

Woods was short, short all week. He just hadn't been himself, for whatever reason.

Bogey-bogey to finish on Thursday, bogey-bogey to finish on Saturday, that is where he "threw this tournament away," his own words after it was over. That is a fair assessment, both the bogey-bogey part and the threw-it-away part. Again, no one will argue.

Yet Woods still had a chance at the end. He had survived the windswept Saturday round, survived all of his inconsistencies, and was still right there. Tied for second at the start of the day, Woods took a share of the lead after a birdie on the second hole and was in the lead by himself as he stood on the fourth tee yesterday at 3-over par. It was just after 3 p.m., and there still were literally miles and hours to go, but Tiger had arrived at his rightful place.

Woods led at Augusta National. Woods was going to win his fifth green jacket. Everybody knew it. The crowds following Woods were enormous, as big as ever, even 10 years after his historic first win at the Masters. In that decade, front-running had become the man's identity, almost his destiny, and no one tired of watching.

But the lead lasted for little more than a hole when Rory Sabbatini eagled the eighth and jumped past him, and then the strokes fell away, shockingly.

Bogey at the 6th. Bogey at the 10th. A saved par on the 11th after breaking his 4-iron in half on a tree. In 2 hours, he had dropped two strokes and fallen to seventh place. It had never happened, not on a major Sunday.

Still, the old scoring holes were ahead on the back nine, the 13th and the 15th, both par-5's. After three rounds, the merciless course setup - made even more wicked by the cold and the wind - had been softened for yesterday. The greens had likely been watered and were more accepting, and the pin placements were easier. "They gave us a break, which was nice," Woods said. "They gave us a chance to go out there and score."

On the 13th, Woods went for it all and easily reached the green in two. His ball hung up on a ridge for 1 second, maybe 2 seconds. The microphones caught him again.

"God, bite," he yelled, and it did. The ball stopped, stopped, and then began a slow, backtracking roll toward the hole. The eagle putt ended up being about 3 feet. When Woods made it, he was two shots down with five holes to play. Anything seemed possible. But he never got closer, dunking a ball in the water on the 15th and settling for par, and then finding the bunker on the 17th that ended his hopes (short of an eagle from the fairway on the 18th).

And in the end, well, what? If it is true that a part of the greatness of Tiger Woods is the fear that he inspires, the picture of that greatness has changed, however slightly. At a wild Masters this week, they tugged on Superman's cape and spit into the Augusta wind and lived to tell about it. Who ever would have guessed?

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.