What's the greatest asset that Tiger Woods has and none of his competitors possess? Forget about his 155-foot yacht, Privacy, and his wife, a former Swedish swimsuit model. I'm talking about golf assets.
So, the answer to my question: the ability to close. Indeed, as great as Woods is at things like putting, driving and chipping, it's closing the ability to prevail when a title is on the line that has, more than anything, put Woods on track to become the greatest golfer in history.
Phil Mickelson reminded me of this on Sunday. No, Mickelson didn't call me. He did his talking with his game at Sheshan International Golf Club in the HSBC Champions, a co-sanctioned Asian and European tour event in Shanghai. Mickelson won the HSBC in a three-man playoff, but he and the other leaders so mightily gagged down the stretch that none of them deserved the trophy.
For Mickelson, the choking occurred when the pressure was greatest during the final-round back nine. After the 10th hole, Mickelson had a commanding three-shot lead. But he ended with a four-over 76 that included his worst nine of the tournament, a four-over-par 40 on the back. Coming home, Mickelson bogeyed 12, doubled the easy par-4 13th, and bogeyed the watery but short (538 yards) par-5 18th.
Mickelson was lucky, because the two guys chasing him, Ross Fisher and Lee Westwood, had similar debacles at 18. Fisher, a 26-year-old Englishman who got his first Euro tour victory at the KLM Open in August, rinsed a ball at 18 in regulation and made a double-bogey. Meanwhile, Westwood, who's played in five Ryder Cups, chunked two balls into the water at 18 on the second playoff hole, where Mickelson made a birdie to earn his first victory outside the U.S. since the 1993 Perrier Open in Paris.
It's easy to play armchair quarterback. But I'm hardly going out on a limb by speculating that Woods would not have coughed up the third-round lead. Nor would he have shot a final-round 76 or made the watery gaffes that Mickelson's competitors made. When Woods has a final-round lead, he wins. He's 40-3 in Tour events in which he's entered the final round in first place, and he's 13-0 in majors when leading after 54 holes.
Mickelson, Westwood and Fisher aren't alone in their inability to withstand pressure like Woods. In one final round after another this year, we've seen the world's best tour pros implode. Remember Boo Weekley yipping the three-footer he had to win the Honda in March? The very next week, Heath Slocum blew his chance to win the PODS Championship by missing a four-footer at 18. Then in the final round of the British Open at Carnoustie, everybody caved to the Sunday pressure. Sergio Garcia yipped away the Claret Jug; Andres Romero did a Van de Velde (at 16, instead of 18); and Padraig Harrington hit two balls into the burn at 18 in regulation, leading to a double-bogey 6, but he eked into a playoff with Garcia and won.
So how does Woods thrive when everybody else dives? Rudy Duran was Woods's first childhood coach, working with him from ages 4 to 10. Duran says that Woods has always had unflappable confidence, backed up by unrivaled talent. "That fist pump, Tiger's been doing that since he was six," Duran once told me. "Tiger has always just known he's going to find a way to do what it takes to beat you."
Duran says that he used to relish having contests (long drive, putting, etc.) and playing matches with Woods, because he could beat the kid. "I loved to tell him, 'I own you.' But I knew that wouldn't last forever," says Duran.
When Woods was 15, he and Duran played an 18-hole match that Duran won by one shot, 72 to 73, because Woods hit his drive at 18 out of bounds. The next day, they had a rematch. This time, Woods whipped Duran, 72-78. In the parking lot after the round, Woods and Duran were changing shoes when Woods smiled at Duran. "I own you now, Rudy," said Woods.