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Woods coasts to title defense

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods came out of the gate with a burst, and that's all it took to win his third Masters.

Woods became the third golfer to win back-to-back Masters, making birdie on two of his first three holes to open the three-shot lead he would finish with Sunday at Augusta National Golf Club.

Woods, 26, joined Jack Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) as winners of consecutive Masters. Along with his record-setting victory in 1997, Woods added his name with those of Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, Gary Player and Faldo as winners of three green jackets. Only Arnold Palmer, with four, and Nicklaus, with six, have won more.

"This year it's different," said Woods, who played 26 holes on Saturday to complete the suspended second round and all of the third. "This year was more of a physical test than it was last year, being a chance to win all four major championships in a row and retain them all; that was a mental test to try and block everything out.

"This year was just a physical grind."

The major title was Woods' seventh as a professional, tying Jones, Palmer and Harry Vardon. Jones would have turned 100 this year, while Palmer made his last appearance at Augusta as a player this weekend.

Woods, who had a 1-under 71 to reach 12-under 276, never led by fewer than two after the third hole. He didn't have to do much after the fast start except complete his round as everyone else on the leaderboard fell by the wayside, failing to make a serious charge.

"I think everyone thinks that everybody laid down," Woods said. "That's not how it was out there, when you're out there playing.

"I think it was a lot tighter than people thought."

Runner-up Retief Goosen, who started the day tied with Woods but faltered early, made birdies at Nos. 15 and 16 to get within four. He was three back after Woods bogeyed No. 17, but by then it was too late.

Phil Mickelson finished third for the second straight year, shooting a 71 to get to 8-under. He started with two birdies, but responded with two bogeys. Two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal grabbed fourth place, also with a 71, to end up at 7-under.

"I think the thing about Tiger is that he's the only leader that you don't have the hope that he'll falter," said Mickelson, who is 0-for-39 in major championships, 0-for-35 as a professional. "When other guys are up there, you know that if you can just stay around there, there's a good chance
they might come back two or three shots, but Tiger doesn't ever seem to do that."

Having two green jackets already may have been the difference for Woods. Of the top 10 entering the day, only Vijay Singh (2000) and Olazabal (1994, 1999) had Masters titles.

"That's a big relief, knowing the fact that no matter what happens, I'm still a champion here and I've done it before," he said.

With little wind during the entire tournament and soft greens from rain, low scores were expected. But it didn't happen. Just seven broke par on Sunday and only one bettered 70, Shigeki Maruyama's 67. Players pointed to some fairways not being cut, mud on the golf ball and tough pin placements.

And chasing Woods doesn't help.

"I just think that we were all trying to make birdies," Mickelson said. "When you do that, you're going to open the door to bogeys."

After building the quick lead, Woods didn't let the door to his third green jacket crack open too much. He had three bogeys, two birdies and 10 pars over his last 15 holes.

Woods cemented his title by nearly holing out on his third shot on the par-5 15th. It was the first time he really showed much emotion, pumping his fist with a determined look on his face. He two-putted for par from the back of No. 16, all but clinching the tournament four up with two to play.

The only time someone got closer than three shots after Woods' initial run was after he bogeyed No. 5. But Woods came right back with a chip-in birdie on No. 6.

In 2000, Els finished second in three majors, twice to Woods. He tried to make a charge, but fell off the top part of the leaderboard with a triple-bogey eight on the par-5 13th.

Singh was within three shots going to the back, but bogeyed Nos. 11 and 14, then took a triple-bogey of his own on No. 15.

It was the 12th straight year the winner came out of the final pairing, and 23rd time in 25 PGA Tour events that Woods has won when having or sharing the lead entering the final round. He is 6-0 in majors when he's in the final group.

The major was the 10th for Woods, counting his three U.S. Amateur titles.

Only Walter Hagen (11), Jones (13) and Nicklaus (20) have more major championships including U.S. Amateurs. It was Woods' sixth victory in the last 10 majors.

And he's only behind Palmer and Nicklaus in green jackets.

"It's pretty neat to be able to have my name mentioned with some of the golfing greats, especially at this tournament," Woods said. "This tournament is obviously very historic and very special to all the players.

"This is a tournament we really want to win, and to be able to put my name on that trophy three times, it's really cool."