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The smile said it all, didn't it? On Sunday evening Tiger Woods stood at the back of the 18th green at Augusta National, awaiting his fate. He had just frittered away a four-stroke lead during the final round of the 69th Masters, flailing to a bogey-bogey finish that he would delicately describe later as "throwing up" on himself. Woods had staggered up the hill to that final green, his labored gait revealing the cumulative toll of a nerve-jangling final nine, during which he and Chris DiMarco had seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E with their sand wedges. Now Woods had left the tournament in DiMarco's hands, in the form of a do-or-die six-foot putt to force sudden death. Moments earlier DiMarco had lipped out a chip, coming agonizingly close to a birdie that could have won the tournament--yet this pit bull in spikes refused to crack. Augusta National fairly shook when DiMarco drilled his pressure-packed par save, but Woods never flinched. Instead he flashed that big, beatific smile, a jarring sight given the enveloping tension of the moment. What was Woods thinking just then? "This is fun," he confided later.

No one in golf lives for the moment quite like Woods. With his lead slipping away, he had dealt DiMarco a body blow on the 16th hole with a seemingly impossible chip-in that instantly became one of the greatest shots in Masters history. On the first hole of sudden death, Augusta National's 18th, Woods finally landed the knockout punches. "For some reason I hit two of the best golf shots I hit all week," he said of the three-wood he busted into the narrow fairway and an eight-iron approach that covered the flag. With DiMarco in with a par, Woods faced a downhill 18-foot putt to win the Masters.

The 18th green at Augusta National is more than just a putting surface; it's the sport's grandest stage. Last year Phil Mickelson trod the boards, sinking a career-defining putt from a spot not far from where Woods's ball had come to rest. After Woods's victorious birdie putt disappeared into the cup, he loosed one of the most emotional celebrations of his career, but the overwhelming feeling was, he says, "validation."

Woods's triumph ended a much scrutinized 0-for-10 drought in the major championships. During those barren 34 months he had revamped his swing and overhauled the equipment in his bag, while also finding time to spend $1.5 million on a Caribbean wedding, donate $5 million to build an eponymous learning center in Southern California, buy a 155-foot yacht, take his first ski vacation, begin learning Swedish (the native tongue of his new bride, Elin) and buzz around South Florida looking for a new home closer to the Atlantic than his residence near Orlando. Along the way there were plenty of naysayers who whispered that the swing changes were a mistake and that maybe a domesticated Woods no longer had the focus to return to the top.

His victory last week silenced the critics and changed the sport's math. In recent months the golf world had been anticipating that this Masters would kick off a new era of parity among the so-called Big Four of Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. But Woods's singular performance at Augusta reaffirmed what we've always known: There is Tiger, and then there's everybody else. You want a big four? Check out Woods's closet, because that's how many green jackets are hanging there.

Only Jack Nicklaus, with six, has more Masters titles, and with all due respect to DiMarco, last week was a reminder that Woods's only real competition is with Nicklaus's legacy of 18 major championship victories. This is Woods's ninth full season on Tour--yes, the onetime boy wonder turns 30 on Dec. 30--and he has nine majors and counting. At the end of his ninth year as a pro, Nicklaus had eight majors.

On Sunday evening a philosophical DiMarco put into words how much this Masters has restored Woods's aura. "You know, I went out and shot 68 on Sunday, which is a very good round, and 12 under is usually good enough to win," he said. "I just was playing against Tiger Woods."

This year's model differs in significant ways from recent versions. In March 2004 Woods began working with instructor Hank Haney to build a more cohesive swing during which he maintains the same plane on the backswing and downswing. Woods's new swing began to come together in late '04, and at the season-ending Tour Championship he made another significant change: He switched to a 460cc driver with a 45-inch graphite shaft, at long last joining the space race for distance.

When Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, he drove the ball so far with his prodigious physical gifts it seemed as if he were playing a shorter, easier course than everybody else. Wielding drivers with heads the size of toasters and composite shafts as long as fishing rods, the competition started closing the gap. Meanwhile, as late as 2003 Woods was still clinging to a retro 265cc driver with a 43.5-inch steel shaft, opting for precision over raw power. The oversized driver Woods went to six months ago helped restore some of his old distance advantage, and in January he took another leap forward by going to a hot new four-piece ball.

With his new swing and new tools Woods simply overwhelmed Augusta National last week, even though since 2001 it has been retrofitted with 305 yards of added length, expanded bunker complexes and a forest of new trees. After opening with a hard-luck 74 that put him seven strokes behind DiMarco, Woods got back in the hunt with a second-round 66, with all but one of the holes being played on Saturday because of rain delays on Thursday and Friday. Comparing the clubs he hit to various greens during the second round with those DiMarco used highlights what a different game Woods plays compared with an average-length hitter. On the 575-yard par-5 2nd hole Woods ripped a four-iron pin-high, while DiMarco was well short of the green with a three-wood. On the 490-yard 11th hole, the portal to Amen Corner, Woods played a pitching wedge, DiMarco a three-iron. At the 500-yard par-5 15th Woods bashed a drive to the bottom of the hill and had only a nine-iron in, leading to another two-putt birdie; DiMarco missed the green with a two-iron.

When the third round commenced late Saturday afternoon, Woods and DiMarco continued to attack the softened course. Tiger bashed his way around the front nine in 31 before darkness halted play, giving him 12 birdies in 26 holes for the day and drawing him within four strokes of the precise DiMarco, who was riding a streak of 44 consecutive holes without a bogey. As scintillating as the golf may have been to that point, though, what really had Augusta buzzing on Saturday was a juicy spat between Singh and Mickelson that had been brewing for days.

for the first three rounds Mickelson played in the group directly in front of Singh. As Lefty was leaving the 13th tee on Friday, a tournament official approached him and asked to examine the bottom of his shoes. According to Will Nicholson, the chairman of the Masters competition committee, "A player [had] said that there were some spike marks on the 12th green, and to the best of their knowledge, they were caused by Phil Mickelson."

While about two thirds of the Masters field used soft spikes, Mickelson went with old-school metal, and for extra traction in the sloppy conditions he employed spikes that were a legal eight millimeters in length instead of the standard six. Back on the 13th tee the Masters official uncovered nothing untoward with Mickelson's spikes, and Spikegate seemed over. But after thunderstorms stopped play on Friday, Mickelson and Singh retreated to the clubhouse, to a claustrophobic upstairs locker room reserved for past champions. At some point Singh began yapping to a table of other players about his irritation in having to navigate Mickelson's spike marks, and overhearing this, Mickelson approached the big Fijian.

According to multiple sources, Mickelson said he felt it was disrespectful for Singh to have tattled to tournament officials rather than approaching him directly. Singh was dismissive in response, and the two men continued to jaw at each other, with the vibe becoming so intense that one past champ later said he considered stepping between the two players. The confrontation eventually was defused without fisticuffs, but Mickelson later issued a sharply worded statement in which he fingered Singh as the whistleblower and added, "I was extremely distracted and would have appreciated if it would have been handled differently."

Proving that the golf gods have a sense of humor, Mickelson's and Singh's scores left them paired for the final round. They shook hands on the 1st tee and then spent the next four hours studiously ignoring each other. Neither would finish within eight shots of Woods, who began the final 18 with a three-stroke lead, thanks to his stunning rally when the third round recommenced on Sunday morning.

As Woods birdied his way through Amen Corner and DiMarco double-bogeyed the 10th hole out of a bush, it was only 43 minutes into the restart when Woods seized his first lead of the tournament. This was bad news for the field: Woods had never lost a major in which he was the leader after 54 holes. Woods's advantage was still three strokes heading to the back side. DiMarco, however, wouldn't go down without a brawl. ("There's no backup in Chris," says Woods.) He rolled in a 30-footer on 11 to trim the lead to one, and then, after bogeying the dangerous 12th, stuck an approach shot to within inches on the 14th for a birdie that again drew him within one stroke. On the 15th they traded prototypal birdies--Woods smashed a drive and easily reached the green with a towering eight-iron, while DiMarco laid up and wedged to within three feet, blissfully immune to the inane braying of CBS's Lanny Wadkins, who opined that by laying up DiMarco was playing for second place.

The par-3 16th hole proved monumental. DiMarco left himself an 18-footer for birdie while Woods jacked his eight-iron long and left of the green, leaving himself little green to get to a tucked pin. His only play was to throw his pitch onto the frighteningly fast slope high above the hole and hope the ball funneled close enough to leave a realistic chance at par. As Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, said later, "We were just trying to escape with a three."

Woods picked his chip beautifully from an awkward lie against the second cut of rough, and the ball skipped onto the green, made a hard right turn and began inching down the slope, breaking toward the cup. The ball stopped on the precipice of the hole and after a beat or two tumbled in for a birdie. Woods's play-by-play: "All of a sudden it looked pretty good. And all of a sudden it looked really good. And then it looked like how could it not go in, and how did it not go in, and all of a sudden it went in. So it was pretty sweet."

Added DiMarco, "You expect the unexpected, and unfortunately it's not unexpected when he's doing it."

Now up by two, Woods gave a shot right back by driving into the trees on 17 and making bogey, setting the stage for the drama on the 18th hole and the ensuing playoff. After Woods had at last vanquished DiMarco, he rushed to the back of the 18th green where his mom, Tida, got the first hug, as usual, and then he planted a long, sloppy smooch on Elin. Noticeably absent among the delirium was Woods's father, Earl. A series of health problems has curtailed Earl's travel in recent years, and now he's battling cancer that began in his prostate but has spread aggressively. He rallied to make the trip to Augusta, but he was not up to navigating the crowds at the course, choosing instead to watch the tournament on TV at a rented house. In an emotional speech at the green jacket ceremony, Tiger dedicated the victory to Earl.

this palpable love between father and son brought the tournament full circle, because over the first two rounds the Nicklaus family had provided the emotional center. Jack had said last year that 2004 might be his last Masters, but his semigoodbye was overshadowed by Arnold Palmer's farewell. Nicklaus already was pondering whether to return this year when a family tragedy propelled him back to Augusta. On March 1 his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, drowned in a hot tub, and Jack and his grieving son Steve withdrew to the place where they are most comfortable showing their feelings, the golf course. A by-product of these 18-hole therapy sessions was that the old man felt his game coming back, and when Steve suggested that one more Masters would be a good diversion for the Nicklaus clan, Jack was happy to oblige.

On a layout that has grown much too long for a 65-year-old, Nicklaus shot a very respectable 77-76 and thrilled the crowd by stiffing a six-iron on his last hole on Saturday. Tears streamed down the great man's face as he took the final steps of his 45-year journey at Augusta.

Nicklaus will be at St. Andrews in July for another final hurrah on the Old Course, where he won two British Opens. Woods, too, will have good vibes when he arrives at the home of golf. At the 2000 British Open he lapped the field, winning by eight strokes, setting a tournament scoring record (19 under) and failing to hit into a single bunker over 72 holes. Woods will be the prohibitive favorite, and he can arrive with Grand Slam dreams if he first prevails in the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where he tied for third in 1999. With its turtleback greens, No. 2 is a shotmaker's delight that puts a premium on a creative short game. Sounds a bit like Augusta National, no?

On Sunday evening Woods deflected talk of a Grand Slam run. His mind was elsewhere. At the green jacket ceremony he told a hushed crowd, "This win is not for me, it's for my dad. It's been a difficult year, he's not doing very well. He made the trek to Augusta, but he was unable to come out and enjoy this." He stopped to gather himself.

"This is for Dad," Woods said, and now the tears were coming fast and furious, and he was gasping for breath. "Every year I've been lucky enough to win this tournament, my dad has been there to give me a hug. I can't wait to get back to the house and give him a big bear hug."

This was the logical end to a topsy-turvy day. After nearly giving away the Masters, Woods couldn't help but grin on the 72nd green. Now, in victory, he was crying when he should have been smiling again.