He has less hair but more muscle. He lost his father but found a bride. He's trading in his town house on the Isleworth driving range for a mansion on the Atlantic. On the golf course he drives it longer though not quite as straight, his putting is streakier, his iron game sharper, his course management more refined.
The Tiger Woods who won the PGA Championship last week at Medinah Country Club is a different player and person from the kid who took the PGA at Medinah in 1999, but seven years later there are intriguing parallels. The '99 PGA remains one of the most momentous of Woods's 51 career Tour victories. It was his second major championship triumph, 2 1/2 long years after his breakthrough at the '97 Masters. Razing
Augusta National had turned Woods into a cross-cultural icon, but the '99 PGA confirmed him to be a player for the ages, and it was the jumping-off point for the greatest golf ever played. From Medinah, Woods roared into a 2000 season in which he won nine tournaments, including three consecutive majors, taking the U.S. and British Opens by a combined 23 strokes.
The march to Medinah in '99 had begun with a famous phone call in May of that year from the range at the Byron Nelson Classic. Two years into a major swing reconstruction, Woods rang his then instructor, Butch Harmon, and said simply, "I got it."
In the wake of his latest victory at Medinah, Woods appears to have ramped up for a stretch that may be every bit as dominant as the golf he played in 2000. The latest streak also began with a practice session, this one in Chicago, following an opening 72 at last month's Western Open. The Western was Woods's first event since he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and he was straining to find his form in a season that had been torn asunder by the death of his father. He set up shop on the range at Cog Hill with his instructor, Hank Haney, with whom he had embarked on yet another swing overhaul two years ago, and in a 2 1/2-hour session they focused on the flaw that had been tormenting Woods: his tendency to cock his head to the left on the backswing and then rock it back to the right on the downswing, upsetting his balance and timing. The enduring image from that grueling session was of Haney's left hand pressed against the right side of Woods's face, keeping his head stable while Tiger focused on rotating smoothly around his spine.
That long afternoon "turned it all around," Woods says, speaking of both his swing and his season. He followed at the Western with rounds of 67-66-68 to surge into second and propel himself to the British Open with much-needed momentum.
Woods has always been so tough to beat because on the PGA Tour he is the most physically gifted athlete and the mentally toughest, the hardest worker and the guy who wants it most. Now that he has entered his 30s he has become an even smarter, more disciplined player. Woods said this summer that Roger Federer is one of his favorite athletes and that he admires his mastery of different playing surfaces. That same adaptability has been apparent during Woods's current three-tournament winning streak. At the British Open he played an uncharacteristic brand of pinpoint small-ball, plotting his way around Hoylake with frightening efficiency. His next time out Woods destroyed the field at the Buick Open, racking up a career-best 28 birdies as he overpowered Warwick Hills Country Club.
Last week at Medinah he combined the best of both worlds, as he alternately attacked and maneuvered around the longest golf course in major championship history, which had been softened by a meek setup and Friday night rain. On Medinah's twisty par-4s he prudently shaped five-woods and three-irons off the tee, but he let the dog out on most of the four par-5s, which he played in nine under. The missing piece for Woods was his putting. At Hoylake he prevailed even though he had three three-putts on the back nine on Saturday, typical of an uneven year on the greens.
"With all this focus on his swing, it's the one thing that's gone neglected," Haney said last week of Woods's putting. "But he's worked hard on it, and it's starting to show."
Woods's putter repeatedly saved him at the PGA, particularly over the first two rounds, when he was in scramble mode while hitting only 15 of 28 fairways. On Saturday he jump-started his round with a 25-footer to save par on the 1st hole, eliciting a violent fist-pump. A ball-striking clinic ensued, and Woods's 65 tied the course record and sent shock waves through the grounds at Medinah. Moments after finishing his third round, U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy looked back toward the 18th green, where Luke Donald faced a long birdie putt. Said Ogilvy, "We need Luke to make this putt so Tiger doesn't have the lead. Because when he has the lead, he wins." Donald missed, meaning he and Woods would be tied for the lead heading into the final round. The desperation Ogilvy felt is born from the numbers. Going into the PGA, Woods was 36 for 39 in closing out when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, including 11 for 11 in the majors.