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Tiger and Tendulkar: champions in search of an aura

On casual glance, it appeared nothing had changed with Sunday at the Masters. Amidst his office of sun-lit azaleas and artificially dyed creeks, Tiger Woods was at work again. His stride was all business, his game face borrowed from Mount Rushmore, his broad shoulders slotting finally into a green jacket of greatness.

But this was no carbon copy masterpiece; the king was back but somewhat bereft of his majesty. Tiger Woods won back a great deal on Sunday, but not everything. With his first major victory since the 2002 U.S. Open (and 9th overall), his reputation was restored, his No.1 ranking reclaimed and his chase of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors resumed. Yet, for all his renewed embrace of glory, his Tiger aura, for now at least, remained absent.

Once Tiger's peers did not so much shake his hand as genuflect. Ernie Els called him a `freak'; Paul Azinger said he was `superhuman', Tom Watson claimed he played `supernaturally'. But, like with Sachin Tendulkar, and only momentarily perhaps, Tiger no longer exudes a smell of intimidation.

These men evoke respect but no longer fear; they are still very good, on days brilliant, but that veneer of invincibility has a tear in it.

With 17 holes to play, Tiger was four shots up over Chris DiMarco and it seemed the final round would be more celebration than contest. Tiger, in his traditional final round red shirt, seemed both bull and bullfighter, all muscular mayhem and arrogant cool, and few sights in sport are as appealing.

Surely he would keep charging, and DiMarco keep fumbling.

Except DiMarco would not back off and Tiger fumbled. Shots of expected magnificence were interspersed with moments of unusual miscalculation (a fair description of Tendulkar these days), and perhaps it was the tentativeness of a champion under pressure trying to recollect what it takes to win.

Finally, at the 16th, he produced a chip-in birdie of staggering impudence, was two shots up with two holes to play and now, surely, victory was assured. But with two bogeys, he tripped again. Eventually, outscored by DiMarco on the day, he won by a fingernail, in a play-off, and if his victories were once imperious then this had the touch of the plebeian to it.

Mr. Woods won, not the Tiger.

Tiger's greatness is undisputed, but he judges himself by extraordinary standards, and so must we, and even this triumph cannot erase the reality that he has descended from his residence on Mount Olympus. It is a mortality advertised by DiMarco's own defiance, as if he was emboldened, too, by the knowledge that the distance between Tiger and field has closed. If once Els' mind guru, Jos Vanstiphout, said: "Tiger is good, but Tiger is not God" then his peers now believe it; they appreciate his talent, but are alive to his frailties.

Tendulkar was always a reluctant God and it is just that we have become impatient worshippers. For much longer than Tiger he has been his sport's leading man, but time eventually is wreaking its own cruel havoc. The batsman is still glorious, but less frequently; brilliance, which it almost seemed he could summon at his command, is now less obedient.

If bowlers once subconsciously expected a mauling of their averages, now they sense opportunity. No rival dare discount him, yet subtly a status quo has altered: where once only strength was seen, now weakness is also visible.

Yet both men have more in common than this. For all his streakiness — erratic first round, dazzling second and third, uneven fourth — the golfer, like the cricketer, is sustained by courage. To quit is contrary to every instinct they own, and they stand on their sporting fields like Horatius did at his bridge.

Where technique occasionally might let Tendulkar down, his will compensates; where touch deserts Tiger, a fighting spirit carries him forward. After all, when it mattered, Tiger made the winning putt. In a way, this proud struggle to reassert themselves, to match the staggeringly high levels they set for themselves, makes them even more fascinating to watch.

Still Tendulkar will stun the senses, and Tiger win majors, but perhaps not as often. Some peaks are not climbed twice and this is more true of the cricketer than the golfer; time, after all, is more an ally of Tiger's, who at 29 knows he can compete till his 40s.

The golfer said he does not want to be the player he was when he won seven of 11 majors and exhausted our thesauruses. He wants to become better. It seems improbable, but such men make a mockery of our assumptions. Perhaps this win is a stepping stone back to Mount Olympus, perhaps the aura will be reclaimed. Still, on Sunday, you could sense Tiger looking over his shoulder at DiMarco. And predators never do.

By Rohit Brijnath

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