Wild Western

Jim Furyk got the win the hard way--by taking Tiger Woods's best shots
July 11, 2005

One thing hasn't changed in almost a decade: Tiger Woods, now at the advanced age of 29, still does amazing things on a regular basis. Like, say, at every tournament.

Yes, Jim Furyk won last week's Cialis Western Open at the famed Dubsdread course at Cog Hill, outside Chicago, with golf that was one part gritty and two parts terrific. He had to be terrific to outlast the suddenly revived Ben Curtis, the forgotten 2003 British Open champion, who had his strongest showing since his one-hit-wonder moment, and Woods, who put on a Sunday charge that was straight out of Arnold Palmer's playbook.

For the record, Furyk's two-shot victory over Woods, with a 14-under-par 270, made it official: He's back to the form he displayed in 2003--his best season. The wrist surgery that sidelined Furyk a year ago is behind him. The British Open at St. Andrews, a ball striker's kind of place, is directly ahead. During ABC's Western Open telecast, analyst Nick Faldo called Furyk a "master craftsman who grinds out scores," a well-deserved compliment from a Hall of Famer who did exactly the same thing, only with a more elegant swing.

Even though Furyk won, this Western was Tiger's show. He was amazing all right, but not always for the right reasons, making it necessary to ask: Will the real Tiger Woods please stand up? You're never sure if you'll see the good Tiger or the bad Tiger in the big spots. Will he be the Tiger who has won three tournaments this year, including the Masters, or the Tiger who nearly blew the Masters by bogeying two of the last three holes, then spoiled his U.S. Open chances by doing the same thing again? Will he be the Tiger who charged from five shots back at the Western on Sunday and tied Furyk for the lead with a birdie-birdie-eagle spurt, or the Tiger who promptly bogeyed the next two holes and fell four shots back before he knew what hit him? Will he be the Tiger who eagled Cog Hill's 15th hole two days in a row or the Tiger who shanked--yes, shanked!--a tee shot in the second round? Amazing stuff, all of it.

Exhibit A: In the midst of his Sunday charge Tiger launched an audacious drive over the trees on the 380-yard 10th hole, a dogleg left. It was jaw-dropping stuff when Woods's 354-yard tee shot landed just short of the green and trundled up the bowling-lane-wide walkway between two greenside bunkers, causing the caddies for Shaun Micheel and Vijay Singh, who were on the green, to turn around and gawk. "Trust me, I wasn't trying to run the ball up that gap," Woods said. "I was trying to put the ball in one of the bunkers." Trust me, the drive was a reminder that Woods should dominate the Old Course next week--even though it has been lengthened--with his power, just as he did during his win in 2000.

But then there's Exhibit B: The bunker shot he botched on the 14th hole. Woods had an awkward lie, forcing him to widen his stance and swing from a crouch, but he slipped his wedge too far under the ball and moved it only a foot or two, leading to the bogey that killed his chances.

Consider, then, Exhibit C. Woods's drive at the par-5 11th hole measured 383 yards but benefited from three big bounces on the cart path in the right rough. He took advantage of the break to hit a flyer nine-iron from 204 yards to the middle of the green and then sink a 53-footer. "That putt was a bomb," he said. "I was just trying to throw a depth charge up there and not three-putt. Somehow it fell in." And somehow, when Tiger really needs eagle, he seems to make one.

Which brings us to Exhibit D. Woods was in a happy post-tournament mood, saying, "I feel very excited because it's similar to how I felt after the Memorial. I had a good finish there, went to the U.S. Open and finished second. It was nice to finish second here and, hopefully, I can win the British." It was nice to finish second? Wherefore art thou Tiger?

Maybe he was happy on Sunday because he finally had the putter working--he has already had 23 three-putt greens this year, as many as in all of 2004. Or perhaps he has finally come to the conclusion that in the big scheme of things, tournaments such as the Western Open are merely tuneups for the majors.

Certainly, Furyk, who had been pipped by Padraig Harrington the week before at Westchester, didn't see the Western that way. He answered Tiger's birdie and eagle spree with three straight birdies of his own. When Tiger made his bogeys, Furyk was only too happy to step on his neck. "That's one negative of being the best," Furyk said. "Everyone expects you to be perfect. He's human. He doesn't make mistakes very often, [but] I'm happy that I was on the receiving end of one."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by DAVID WALBERG COUNTERPUNCH Playing small ball to Woods's amazing power game, Furyk matched Tiger (inset) birdie for birdie on Sunday. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by DAVID WALBERG[See caption above] COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by DAVID WALBERG SECOND THOUGHTS Woods was uncharacteristically pleased to be the runner-up. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by DAVID WALBERG BEN WHO? Curtis came out of nowhere to finish third, his best result in more than a year.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)