The first tee atSouthern Hills Country Club is one of the most majestic in golf, perched highabove a serpentine fairway with the Tulsa skyline looming far beyond. OnSunday, Tiger Woods arrived on the tee shortly before 2 p.m. CDT to begin hisfinal round at the 89th PGA Championship. The temperature was into tripledigits, but Woods looked utterly at ease. The glistening Wanamaker trophy,which Woods had already claimed three times, was on a pedestal at the back ofthe tee box, but he didn't even give it a glance. As Woods settled over hisball, everything stopped--the swarms of fans, the security guards with theirmirrored sunglasses, the cameramen with their itchy trigger fingers. Woods'spresence was as palpable as the humidity.
He did not take apractice swing, and why should he? Woods had been preparing for this moment allhis life. His swing has never looked more rhythmic or graceful than it did lastweek, but the underpinnings of his action remain athleticism and strength. Helashed at his ball and propelled it through the dead air with an audiblesizzle. Woods held his follow-through just a beat longer than usual, watchinghis ball trace its towering arc down the fairway.
They might as wellhave bronzed him on the spot.
Woods is makinghistory in real time, and Sunday at Southern Hills was the latest opportunityto marvel at his mastery. The outcome was never really in doubt, but it wasstill impossible to look away. It is riveting to watch the greatest there'sever been at the height of his powers. In a sports world awash in scandal anddisillusionment, Woods's unrelenting brilliance is one of the few things we cancount on.
August 19, 2007
After that first,perfect tee shot Woods toured the rest of the course in 68 more economicalstrokes, on his way to a two-shot victory. With Woods the wins are impressivenot only for the aesthetics but also for their context. The long history ofmajor championship golf can now be summarized in three words: Jones, Nicklaus,Woods. With his 13th Grand Slam victory Woods tied the career total of thegreat Bobby Jones and moved that much closer to Jack Nicklaus's epic record of18. The thread connecting them stretches back 84 years, to Jones's triumph atthe 1923 U.S. Open. Woods is acutely aware of golf history and his effect onit. Afterward he said, "Anytime you're in conversations with Bobby Jonesand Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen"--Nicklaus and Hagen each won a recordfive PGAs--"it makes you understand that you've had a nice run in yourcareer. If you would have asked me if, 12 years into my career, would I havehad this many wins and this many majors, there's no way."
To get his latestW, Woods had to survive an unforgiving course that yielded only five totalsunder par and scorching sunshine that sent more than 200 fans into the care ofmedics. For every other player in the field it wasn't the heat but thehumility. As Arron Oberholser said last Saturday, "He knows he's going towin. The scary thing is that maybe he knows you know he's going towin."
Why is Woods sotough to beat? It's simple, really: He's the most gifted athlete on Tour, themost mentally tough and one of the hardest workers. That's been the case moreor less since the day he turned pro in 1996. But now, at 31, he has turnedhimself into the game's cagiest strategist too.
When Woods was incollege at Stanford, he began an enduring friendship with Bill Walsh, who wascoaching the Cardinal football team at the time. Last Friday a public memorialwas held in San Francisco for Walsh, who died on July 30 of leukemia. At theceremony a telegram from Woods describing Walsh as almost a second father tohim during his freshman year was read to the 8,000 fans, former players andWalsh acolytes in attendance. At Southern Hills that day, 1,700 miles away,Woods paid tribute to the old coach with a virtuoso performance of golf'sversion of the West Coast offense, as he picked apart the course's defenses onelittle swing at a time.
When it was over,Woods had tied the lowest score at a major championship with a 63, though hecalled it a 621‚ÅÑ2 after spinning out his 15-footer on the final hole. For theround, Woods made well more than 100 feet of putts--including amomentum-building 35-footer to save par after landing in a bunker onnumber¬†12--and he chipped in at the 14th, but this 63 was a monument todecision-making and restraint. Woods birdied one par-3, the 14th, and this iswhat he hit off the tee to set up the seven other birdies: a¬†two-iron, athree-iron, two four-irons, a five-iron, a three-wood and a driver.
Said Oberholser,who tied for fourth, seven strokes back, "He just plods along with suchhorrifying precision."
Woods's ability tooutthink the competition first came into sharp relief during his masterly winat last year's British Open, in which he used a conservative game plan tonavigate the baked fairways and penal pot bunkers at Royal Liverpool inHoylake, England. But just as the 1997 Masters was the defining performance bythe young Woods, who overwhelmed with raw power, this PGA confirmed hisascension as an unparalleled tactician. Compared with the relatively expansivelinks at Hoylake, Southern Hills offered far less margin for error. It is alittle bandbox of a course, framed in grabby bermuda rough with tight,tree-lined fairways that dogleg in inconvenient places. There are only twopar-5s on a par-70 that stretches to 7,131 yards. The players compared it lastweek with Colonial and Valderrama, two claustrophobic courses Woods is known toloathe. But if either of those tracks were to be awarded a major championship,Woods would surely embrace their challenges just long enough to masterthem.
"You play whatthe golf course gives you," Woods says, "and one thing I've learnedabout playing over the years is not to go against that."
Not that he hasbecome a piker; Woods still has plenty of power in reserve when he needs it.During the opening round at Southern Hills he reached the 653-yard par-5 5thhole in two mighty blows, the second of which was a 298-yard three-wood thatnestled within 15 feet of the hole. The ensuing birdie highlighted a 71 thatafterward had Woods ruing his missed opportunities. At one over par he was sixshots off the lead of unknown Englishman Graeme Storm and four behind the realstory of the first round, John Daly, whose presence on the leader board--andinevitable tumble off of it--helped to further illustrate Woods'sdiscipline.
Daly's combinationof power and touch is in the same class as Woods's, but that's where thecomparison ends. Daly arrived in Tulsa two days before the tournament startedbut didn't lay eyes on Southern Hills until Thursday's first round, preferringto spend his time (and money) at the nearby Cherokee Casino. Woods, meanwhile,began plotting his strategy with a Monday practice round at sunrise, about11¬†hours after he had won the Bridgestone Invitational, which was played900¬†miles away in Akron. When the tournament proper began, Daly mindlesslybashed his way around Southern Hills, playing a brand of caveman golf in whichhe hit driver on nearly every hole, consequences be damned. He got lucky forone round, but on Friday, Daly made four bogeys and a double to shoot 73 andfall six back of Woods, whose 63 had propelled him two shots clear of thefield.
As Daly continuedhis fade--he finished 73-73, in 32nd place--it was left to Stephen Ames, WoodyAustin and Ernie Els to give chase. At various points over the final two roundseach showed some admirable spunk, but Woods was unyielding. On Saturday heplayed his usual prevent defense, shooting a coldly clinical 69 to go up bythree strokes on Ames, four on Austin and six on Els. History was not on theside of the pursuers. Woods was 23-0 in his career when holding more than aone-shot lead entering the final round, and he was 12¬†for¬†12 inmajors when he had a lead or a share of it. Even worse news for Ames: In thosedozen victories Woods's final-round scoring average was 69.25 versus 72.92 forhis playing partners.
"It's tough toplay with Tiger, no doubt about it," said Ames on the eve of the finalround. "He's relentless, constantly making great shots, making greatputts."
So how do you beathim?
Sunday wound upbeing slightly more interesting than might have been predicted. Ames struggledfrom the first tee shot--a crashing hook into the trees that led to abogey--and would shoot 76. Beginning at number 4 Woods birdied three of thenext five holes, punctuated by a curling 30-footer from the fringe on the 8ththat begat a lusty fist pump. That pushed the lead to a commanding fivestrokes, but Woods began playing a touch too defensively while Els and Austinkept attacking, making three birdies apiece early on the back nine. When Tigerthree-putted the 14th hole from 40¬†feet, his lead was down to a lonestroke.
Said Woods later,"Going to the 15th tee, I told myself, You got yourself into this mess, nowgo earn your way out of it."
With renewedaggression Woods covered the flag with his approach at the 15th, and theensuing birdie pushed the lead back to two strokes on Austin and three overEls, who up ahead had made bogey on the 16th after a wild hook off the tee. Thechallengers would never creep any closer. The drama, such as it was, had lastedall of 15¬†minutes. Woods closed out his 69 with three textbook pars, for afour-round total of 272.
For Tiger hisgrowing major championship tally is paramount, but the victory had othermeaning. This golf season lacked definition until two weeks ago, as theprevious majors had gone to a trio of first-time winners and Woods had beenlooking almost human, having stumbled down the stretch at the Masters and theU.S. Open. And though Tiger had a Tour-best three victories through the end ofJuly, even those performances had been underwhelming, as he shot 38 on thefinal nine holes at two of them. But before the Bridgestone's final round Tigerfound something on the range in the release of his club on the downswing, andhe closed with a bogey-free 65 to blow away the field by eight strokes. Thoughit was a vintage performance, Woods came to the PGA knowing what was at stake."To have a great year, you have to win a major championship," he saidat Southern Hills.
Now he has fivevictories in a season for a record eighth time, and unless Zach Johnson sweepsall four of the upcoming FedEx Cup playoff events, Woods will be player of theyear for the ninth time in the last 11 years.
Another nicemilestone is that this PGA was Woods's first major win as a father. Thedominating performance at Southern Hills should put to rest the notion thatbeing a family man will somehow blunt Woods's competitive edge. This was alwaysa spurious concept, given that Nicklaus won all 18 of his majors as a dad.Anyway, as Woods's friend and neighbor Lee Janzen says, "Tiger's asstubborn and as driven as anyone who has ever picked up a club. If people aresaying being a dad is going to affect his game, he'll go the extra mile to makesure it doesn't. That's how he's wired."
Up until now Woodshas tried to hide his soft side. At the Bridgestone he was asked if, given hisinsurmountable lead on the final holes, he had thought of two-month-old SamAlexis, cooing back at home. "No, not when I'm out there playing,"Woods said. He finally allowed himself to get a little mushy at Southern Hills.Moments after he tidied up on the 18th hole his wife, Elin, surprised him inthe scoring area by showing up with Sam, who was turned out in a shade of herfather's traditional Sunday red. Minutes later Woods was back on the 18thgreen, broiling in the sun for the trophy presentation. Referring to hisvictorious postround smooches with wife and child, he told the crowd, "Thatwas a feeling I've never experienced," and he got a little choked up in thetelling. In a week defined by clever thinking, Woods had found a novel way tobeat the heat. "I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it,"he said.¬±
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"If you would have asked me if, 12 years into mycareer, would I have
had this many wins and this many majors," Woodssaid, "NO WAY."
"He knows he's going to win," said Oberholser."The scary thing is that maybe he knows THAT YOU KNOW he's going towin."