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Major flaw: Sunday comebacks

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods knows history, even if he doesn't always make it.

His bid to become the first player to win three straight Masters
ended when Woods imitated eventual champion Mike Weir by hitting
left-handed out of the azaleas on the third hole and making double
bogey.

But if past performance is any indication, it was over before
Woods got to the first tee.

He figured he needed a 65 in the final round, the same score
Jack Nicklaus shot when he rallied from four strokes down to win
the 1986 Masters.

And that right there is the difference.

Nicklaus charged into history. Woods prefers to lead the way.

Woods has won all eight of his majors by taking at least a share
of the lead into the final round. That's not an accident -- it just
confirms he's on top of his game, and his opponents have seen
enough to know he won't come back to the field.

This week was different.

It started with Woods needing to chip three times on the first
green, the last one dropping from 40 feet for an improbable bogey.
He needed a gutsy par on his 36th hole -- from under a tree and out
of a bunker -- just to make the cut on the number.

''It was just one of those weeks where I couldn't really get
anything going for an extended period of time,'' Woods said Sunday
after shooting 75 and just before heading to the closing ceremony
to present Weir with the green jacket.

Everyone knows that Woods is 28-2 when leading after 54 holes.
Flip that around, though, and he is only 8-89 in stroke-play
tournaments when trailing.

Sometimes, he was well out of the hunt. But there were seven
major championships in which Woods was within five shots of the
lead going into the final round -- the same margin Len Mattiace made
up Sunday at Augusta National -- without winning.

Woods has come close twice, at Pinehurst No. 2 and Royal
Birkdale, but he has yet to force a playoff.

Nicklaus, whose 18 majors remain the benchmark, was renowned for
his Sunday charges in the biggest tournaments. The Golden Bear came
from behind seven times in his career, including five of his first
eight majors.

''He's close to perfect, but he's not totally perfect,'' said
Woods' good friend Mark O'Meara. ''That doesn't mean it will go his
way every time, and he knows that.''

If Woods didn't know that when he teed off under sunny, breezy
conditions Sunday, it wasn't long before he found out.

He had an 18-foot eagle putt on the second hole that was
woefully short, and he settled for birdie. Then Woods made the kind
of blunder he usually forces from everyone else.

Caddie Steve Williams talked him into a driver on the 350-yard
third hole, and Woods missed it right into the trees, so close to
the azaleas that he turned around a wedge and hit it left-handed to
get back into the fairway.

''Granted, I hit a good shot to get out, but I also left myself
one of the hardest shots on the golf course,'' he said. ''On top of
that, I semi-bladed it. I kept compounding one problem after
another.''

The first pitch went long. The second was short. Two putts from
the fringe later, Woods was back to even par and didn't make
another birdie until No. 9. By then, he was 3 over par and trailing
by nine.

By the end of his career, some of these statistics could balance
themselves out. Woods proved he is capable of big comebacks at the
2000 Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, when he made up seven strokes
over the final seven holes.

He made up eight shots on Ernie Els in one day alone, the final
round of the 1998 Johnnie Walker Classic, eventually beating the
Big Easy in a playoff.

No such luck in the majors, even with a big chunk of history
riding on the outcome.

Woods rallied from two holes down with two to play to win his
third straight U.S. Junior Amateur. He made up a five-hole deficit
after the morning round in 1996 to win an unprecedented third
straight U.S. Amateur.

The other time Woods had a chance to win the same major three
straight times was at the 2001 PGA Championship. He holed two long
putts on the closing holes just to make the cut at Atlanta Athletic
Club.

Nicklaus predicted in 1996 when Woods was still a sophomore at
Stanford that his fundamentals were so sound he probably would win
more green jackets than Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer combined (10).

If that's the case, he might have another shot at three straight
green jackets.