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Lateral Hazard: Tiger Woods still on track to catch Jack Nicklaus

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Tiger Woods tips his cap as he walks to the 18th green during the final round of the Masters. (USAT Sports)

It's long been my thought that Tiger Woods is so comfortable at Augusta National Golf Club, that his game and his competitive soul were so bred to win green jackets, that he will pass Jack Nicklaus on the all-time majors list because he will stockpile two, maybe even three more green jackets en route to 19 total major wins.

And after an eighth consecutive Masters without a Tiger win, as we approach the five-year anniversary of his last major championship, I'm sticking with that thought.

I know, I know. He had his chances this time around and wasn't as sound as champion Adam Scott or as clutch as runner-up Angel Cabrera. Heck, I even know he lost the respect of many with an illegal drop – no, I don't believe in the "grassy knoll" Augusta Chronicle photos claiming his drop was legal – and signing an incorrect scorecard, only to avoid disqualification with a call from the governor, a.k.a. the green jackets who weren't about to DQ Tiger (Freakin') Woods.

And I know he's 37, and not getting younger. And I know his knees are surgically repaired. And I know the fields are strong, that for every Rory McIlroy, there's a Bubba Watson and an Adam Scott and a Webb Simpson and a Keegan Bradley.

But there is something still so vital about Tiger's game, you'd be a fool to read a tie-4th at the 2013 Masters – four shots off the lead – as a sign that Tiger's best days are over.

To wit:

• He's won three times this year already, and six times in his last 21 starts. Nobody in the world matches that.

• In seven of the last eight Masters, he's finished tie-3rd, tie-2nd, 2nd, tie-6th, tie-4th, tie-4th, tie-4th. He's not just knocking on the door. He's taking a battering ram to it.

• He probably has another eight years of peak golf left in him, so that's 32 more majors in which to win five, with a good chance to win, say, three Masters and, let's just say, two British Opens (the creativity suits his game).

• And as his new squeeze, Lindsey Vonn, tweeted after the Masters on Sunday: "Plenty more golf left this year. :) #fighter #eyeofthetiger"

[Related: Expecting Tiger Woods to disqualify himself is antiquated and absurd]

Let's set aside for a moment that she actually went there, that she actually used a smiley-face emoticon, that she actually hash-tagged "#eyeofthetiger", a remarkable bit of junior high level public display of affection. Instead, focus on her content: There is a ton of golf left, starting with Merion's U.S. Open and on to Muirfield's British Open and then Oak Hill's PGA Championship.

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Tiger Woods reacts after missing a putt on the fourth green. (AP)

And if you need evidence of why Tiger's just fine after another major without a win, study his back nine on Sunday. He'd played tight on the front nine, making bogey on Nos. 5 and 7, failing to birdie either par-5 – Nos. 2 and 8. It almost felt like he was pressing, that he felt the Ghost of Eighteen Majors lurking in his backswing. His putting, so murderously good since Steve Stricker's advice to him last month, looked suspect, as if he'd forgotten Stricker's tip. (Idle thought: Is it within Augusta National's bylaws to carry smart phones on the course? Because a quick text to super nice guy Stricker, "Dude. Go to TV. Watch my stance. Text me fix. Thanks, bud. Pimento cheese sando on me," could have solved it all.)

Then he got to the 9th hole, a difficult place to make birdie. He did, by making a 20-footer. His approach at 10 was money, leading to another birdie. He darn near jarred a chip for birdie on 11, missing by inches. He had a great look for birdie on 12. He had a look at eagle on 13. In other words, he was charging, like Tiger does.

He had a look at eagle on 15, and a good look for bird on 16. He was right there. Golf being golf, he didn't convert them all. Hey, it happens. A useful note to anybody who argues that if Tiger was all the way "back", he'd win: Tiger just logged his 11th top-five finish at the Masters. The record is held by Jack Nicklaus, with 15. So, Jack didn't always convert either.

And, of course, this Masters will forever be remembered for Tiger's 15th hole on Friday. Tied for the lead, he was about to take control when his approach ricocheted off the flagstick, setting off all kinds of controversy. While I happen to think Augusta National botched the ruling – see 'Broadcast Moment of the Week' below – I also know that Tiger was the victim of an awful, rotten break. Yes, he's received tons of great breaks in his career. But remember how good his golf was right up until that point, and how the penalty affected the rest of his tournament.

The field knows. They know Tiger will be in the hunt at Merion, and at Muirfield and at Oak Hill. He just went 70-73-70-70, and you can make a good argument that Friday's 73 was on its way to a 69, if not for the unfortunate bounce off the flagstick.

Point is, Tiger's Masters proved he is, indeed, back. But don't believe me. Believe Lindsey Vonn's hashtags.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

73-75-77-75 – 12-over 300, Tianlang Guan, 58th place, The Masters, Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

OK. This isn't serious, is it? A 14-year-old kid from China didn't just fly halfway around the globe, roll into Augusta National's clubhouse with his travel bag, see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy – not to mention Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player – in the grill room, then do that? Then go become the youngest player to ever make the cut at the Masters? And never three-putt a green? And never make worse than a bogey?

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Tianlang Guan hits his tee shot on the 7th hole during the final round of the Masters. (USAT Sports)

And do it all after Augusta National slapped him with a 'slow play' penalty, an insult to all of us golf fans who've endured penalty-free slow play from pros for the past decade?

My goodness. Imagine how well he would have played without the crushing awkwardness of puberty, embarrassing parents and nursing a crush on a girl in his eighth grade history class.

We worry about 'too much, too soon' for some of these athletes. We see players like Michelle Wie get fed to the wolves early, and sport scar tissue as a result. We know Tiger didn't play in the Masters until he won a U.S. Amateur and was a freshman at Stanford. So, yes, we worry about Tianlang Guan not rushing into things.

He says he's not turning pro, that he has "too many things to work on." One thing he doesn't have to work on is his poise. The kid did interviews in English (!), took the high road on the slow-play penalty and even wore sporty plaid slacks, too.

If the 2013 Masters is remembered as three things, let it be: a) Australia's triumph; b) Tiger's 'DropGate' and c) The super-cool stretch of golf by a 14-year-old kid who redefined mettle in the cathedral of pines.

BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK

"I do believe the onus is on Tiger Woods to step forward, for the proceedings today, for this tournament, for his career, to disqualify himself." – Brandel Chamblee, The Golf Channel.

Thing is, I could have chosen about a gazillion other moments from DropGate, or TigerGate, or RulesGate or the latest example of how Tiger Woods cleaves the population into Tiger lovers and Tiger, um, dislikers.

I'll go with Chamblee, because he crystallized the "Tiger Should W/D" crew's views. On Saturday morning, he had company from Nick Faldo, who called Tiger's drop "dreadful" and many in the Twitterverse, including David Duval and Greg Norman. Norman put it simply: "Woods violated the rules as he played … WD for the game."

But the "W/D Posse" was stripped of ammunition when rules committee chair Fred Ridley went on CBS with Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin Saturday. (And by the way, does it get more country club than Nantz and Ridley? Talk about two blazer-wearers you'd see at the Friday night club buffet before the Saturday morning club championship, followed by some gentlemanly chat in the grill room.)

[Related: Photos: Sunday at the Masters]

In an amazing side note, it is being reported that Nantz is the one who called Ridley Friday night to re-open the case, after seeing Tiger's ESPN interview in which he said he took the drop "two yards" behind his original spot. Nantz as the narc! The plot thickens. In fact, Augusta National said a different caller phoned in during Tiger's round to raise the question of the drop. This opened up the ethical question of armchair rules officials and their duties. Even Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Joe Montana took to Twitter blasting fans who call in. Ridley said the Masters gets dozens of calls about rules during the tournament, and leads to one to wonder: How many are prank calls? Any from Howard Stern's famous "Captain Janks," who has infiltrated huge moments with prank calls, including the O.J. Simpson chase in 1994? How many call Augusta National asking if the club "has Prince Albert in a can?"

Anyway.

Ridley reminded all of the 2011 addition to the Rules of Golf, Rule 33-7, which is the magic bullet for Tiger: "A penalty of disqualification may in exceptional individual cases be waived, modified or imposed if the committee considers such action warranted."

In other words, Ridley and the green jackets could overlook Tiger's ignorance of the rules (never an excuse in the old days) and Tiger's signing of an incorrect scorecard (never an excuse in the old days) by using the key words "waived" and "exceptional individual cases."

"It's a very complicated situation," Ridley said, failing to add on national TV: "You have to understand, there's no (freaking) way I'm gonna DQ Tiger Woods at the Masters."

To my eyes, it's pretty simple: Tiger violated the rules, then signed an incorrect scorecard. It would keep golf's honorable code intact if he was disqualified. But the new rule provided Augusta National and Tiger with an out, so they're technically and legally in the clear. That the committee failed to inform him of a violation, or that the committee studied the tape and didn't see the violation, provided the opening for the committee to say "Our bad" and invoke 33-7.

Or, as the great Dan Jenkins called it: "A Get Out of Jail Free Card."

Chamblee and Faldo had to pipe down by Saturday afternoon, with Faldo saying "it's a new era, with new rules" and Chamblee saying, "the committee made their ruling, the ruling stands."

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Augusta chairman Billy Payne (middle), competition committee chairman Fred Ridley (left) and chairman of the media …

In fairness to Tiger, he's not the first beneficiary of a favorable ruling by Augusta National. Famously, Ken Venturi thinks Arnold Palmer won the 1958 green jacket because the club awarded him a hugely favorable, erroneous ruling on the 12th hole on Sunday. Ernie Els got a majorly favorable free drop in a pile of debris left of the 11th hole in 2004, too. So, like the NBA makes sure to coddle LeBron and Kobe when it comes to officials' whistles, Augusta National has a history of – wink-wink, nudge-nudge – making sure the big boys get rulings that work well for both parties.

Ridley recoiled at that notion when Nantz posed it.

"Jim, the Masters was founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts," Ridley said, name-dropping. "Integrity has been the underpinning of this club from day one. We look at every player the same, whether it's the last player who qualified or Tiger Woods."

He failed to add, again: "And you have to understand. There's no (freaking) way I'm gonna DQ Tiger Woods at the Masters. You dig?"

If George Orwell were still on the Rules Committee, he'd note: "All players are created equal. Just some are more equal than others."

Or, as caddie Kip Henley tweeted: "Something tells me that if it was B. Gay, he'd be at the Holiday Inn packing his stuff."

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

Jason Day arrived at the 16th tee on Sunday with some cool facial scruff, a birth certificate that said he's only 25 years old, and a two-shot lead at the Masters with three holes to play.

Three holes later, Day walked off the green with the cool facial scruff and the birth certificate – and two bogeys in his last three holes to miss a playoff by two shots.

Day had to watch Scott scream, in CBS super slo-mo, 'COME ON, AUSSIE!' and think: "I'm an Aussie … I could have yelled 'COME ON, AUSSIE!' … and all I have is this stinkin' bronze medal." Ouch.

Day would have joined Tiger Woods and Seve Ballesteros as the only players aged 25 or younger who ever won a Masters, and that's some tall cotton.

[Related: Adam Scott claims Australia's first Masters]

Instead, he'll forever rue the bogeys at 16 and 17 – particularly at 16, which was set up for birdie, as Augusta National loves to churn up some late Sunday drama. In fact, Day's bogey at 16 was the only bogey made by any player who finished in the top 10.

The culprit was an overcooked tee shot, leaving Day an awkward chip back and a tough par putt. He didn't convert.

So let's go back to the 16th tee, in that Georgia rain, remind Day that the hole is a piece of cake, that he only need hit the green, make his 3 and move on, club him down one and … give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Shhhh. It's hangover week.

Golf's raging party of the Masters – tense, thrilling, an overload of the senses – rolls into a serene coastal spot in South Carolina. Harbour Town is always the ultimate post-Masters 'hair of the dog,' a sleepy, beautiful golf course, with great scenery and boats drifting in the water. It almost feels mandatory to watch the Heritage from Harbour Town in a hammock, with a Bloody Mary.

Carl Pettersson is the defending champ, but the field is strong, with Snedeker and Luke Donald and Ernie Els in the mix. It was so quiet at Harbour Town, late Sunday afternoon, if you tried real hard, and leaned your ears toward Georgia, you could hear a guy yell: "COME ON, AUSSIE!!"

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