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No Sweat

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Woods's 30-foot putt from just off the green at the 8th on Sunday gave him a five-shot lead and inspired a lusty fist pump in celebration.

The first tee at Southern Hills Country Club is one of the most majestic in golf, perched high above a serpentine fairway with the Tulsa skyline looming far beyond. On Sunday, Tiger Woods arrived on the tee shortly before 2 p.m. CDT to begin his final round at the 89th PGA Championship. The temperature was into triple digits, but Woods looked utterly at ease. The glistening Wanamaker trophy, which Woods had already claimed three times, was on a pedestal at the back of the tee box, but he didn't even give it a glance. As Woods settled over his ball, everything stopped — the swarms of fans, the security guards with their mirrored sunglasses, the cameramen with their itchy trigger fingers. Woods's presence was as palpable as the humidity.

He did not take a practice swing, and why should he? Woods had been preparing for this moment all his life. His swing has never looked more rhythmic or graceful than it did last week, but the underpinnings of his action remain athleticism and strength. He lashed at his ball and propelled it through the dead air with an audible sizzle. Woods held his follow-through just a beat longer than usual, watching his ball trace its towering arc down the fairway.

They might as well have bronzed him on the spot.

Woods is making history in real time, and Sunday at Southern Hills was the latest opportunity to marvel at his mastery. The outcome was never really in doubt, but it was still impossible to look away. It is riveting to watch the greatest there's ever been at the height of his powers. In a sports world awash in scandal and disillusionment, Woods's unrelenting brilliance is one of the few things we can count on.

After that first, perfect tee shot Woods toured the rest of the course in 68 more economical strokes, on his way to a twoshot victory. With Woods the wins are impressive not only for the aesthetics but also for their context. The long history of major championship golf can now be summarized in three words: Jones, Nicklaus, Woods. With his 13th Grand Slam victory Woods tied the career total of the great Bobby Jones and moved that much closer to Jack Nicklaus's epic record of 18. The thread connecting them stretches back 84 years, to Jones's triumph at the 1923 U.S. Open. Woods is acutely aware of golf history and his effect on it. Afterward he said, "Anytime you're in conversations with Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen" — Nicklaus and Hagen each wona record five PGAs — "it makes you understand that you've had a nice run in your career. If you would have asked me if, 12 years into my career, would I have had this many wins and this many majors, there's no way."

To get his latest W, Woods had to survive an unforgiving course that yielded only five totals under par and scorching sunshine that sent more than 200 fans into the care of medics. For every other player in the field it wasn't the heat but the humility. As Arron Oberholser said last Saturday, "He knows he's going to win. The scary thing is that maybe he knows you know he's going to win."

Why is Woods so tough to beat? It's simple, really: He's the most gifted athlete on Tour, the most mentally tough and one of the hardest workers. That's been the case more or less since the day he turned pro in 1996. But now, at 31, he has turned himself into the game's cagiest strategist too.

When Woods was in college at Stanford, he began an enduring friendship with Bill Walsh, who was coaching the Cardinal football team at the time. Last Friday a public memorial was held in San Francisco for Walsh, who died on July 30 of leukemia. At the ceremony a telegram from Woods describing Walsh as almost a second father to him during his freshman year was read to the 8,000 fans, former players and Walsh 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's version of the West Coast offense, as he picked apart the course's defenses one little swing at a time.

When it was over, Woods had tied the lowest score at a major championship with a 63, though he called it a 62 1/2 after spinning out his 15-footer on the final hole. For the round, Woods made well more than 100 feet of putts — including a momentum-building 35 footer to save par after landing in a bunker on number 12 — and he chipped in at the 14th, but this 63 was a monument to decisionmakingand restraint. Woods birdied one par-3, the 14th, and this is what he hit off the tee to set up the seven other birdies: a two-iron, a three-iron, two four-irons, a five-irons, a three-wood and a driver.

Said Oberholser, who tied for fourth, seven strokes back, "He just plods along with such horrifying precision."

Woods's ability to outthink the competition first came into sharp relief during his masterly win at last year's British Open, in which he used a conservative game plan to navigate the baked fairways and penal pot bunkers at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England. But just as the 1997 Masters was the defining performance by the young Woods, who overwhelmed with raw power, this PGA confirmed his ascension as an unparalleled tactician. Compared with the relatively expansive links at Hoylake, Southern Hills offered far less margin for error. It is a little bandbox of a course, framed in grabby bermuda rough with tight, tree-lined fairways that dogleg in inconvenient places. There are only two par-5s on a par.70 that stretches to 7,131 yards. The players compared it last week with Colonial and Valderrama, two claustrophobic courses Woods is known to loathe. But if either of those tracks were to be awarded a major championship, Woods would surely embrace their challenges just long enough to master them.

"You play what the golf course gives you," Woods says, "and one thing I've learned about playing over the years is not to go against that."

Not that he has become 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 5th hole in two mighty blows, the second of which was a 298-yard threewood that nestled within 15 feet of the hole. The ensuing birdie highlighted a 71 that afterward had Woods ruing his missed opportunities. At one over par he was six shots off the lead of unknown Englishman Graeme Storm and four behind the real story of the first round, John Daly, whose presence on the leader board.and inevitable tumble off of it.helped to further illustrate Woods's discipline.

Daly's combination of power and touch is in the same class as Woods's, but that's where the comparison ends. Daly arrived in Tulsa two days before the tournament started but didn't lay eyes on Southern Hills until Thursday's first round, preferring to spend his time (and money) at the nearby Cherokee Casino. Woods, meanwhile, began plotting his strategy with a Monday practice round at sunrise, about 11 hours after he had won the Bridgestone Invitational, which was played 900 miles away in Akron. When the tournament proper began, Daly mindlessly bashed his way around Southern Hills, playing a brand of caveman golf in which he hit driver on nearly every hole, consequences be damned. He got lucky for one round, but on Friday, Daly made four bogeys and a double to shoot 73 and fall six back of Woods, whose 63 had propelled him two shots clear of the field.

As Daly continued his fade.he finished 73.73, in 32nd place.it was left to Stephen Ames, Woody Austin and Ernie Els to give chase. At various points over the final two rounds each showed some admirable spunk, but Woods was unyielding. On Saturday he played his usual prevent defense, shooting a coldly clinical 69 to go up by three strokes on Ames, four on Austin and six on Els. History was not on the side of the pursuers. Woods was 23-0 in his career when holding more than a one-shot lead entering the final round, and he was 12 for 12 in majors when he had a lead or a share of it. Even worse news for Ames: In those dozen victories Woods's final-round scoring average was 69.25 versus 72.92 for his playing partners.

"It's tough to play with Tiger, no doubt about it," said Ames on the eve of the final round. "He's relentless, constantly making great shots, making great putts."

So how do you beat him?

"I don't know."

Sunday wound up being slightly more interesting than might have been predicted. Ames struggled from the first tee shot — a crashing hook into the trees that led to a bogey — and would shoot 76. Beginning at number 4 Woods birdied three of the next five holes, punctuated by a curling 30-footer from the fringe on the 8th that begat a lusty fist pump. That pushed the lead to a commanding five strokes, but Woods began playing a touch too defensively while Els and Austin kept attacking, making three birdies apiece early on the back nine. When Tiger three-putted the 14th hole from 40 feet, his lead was down to a lone stroke.

Said Woods later, "Going to the 15th tee, I told myself, You got yourself into this mess, now go earn your way out of it."

With renewed aggression Woods covered the flag with his approach at the 15th, and the ensuing birdie pushed the lead back to two strokes on Austin and three over Els, who up ahead had made bogey on the 16th after a wild hook off the tee. The challengers would never creep any closer. The drama, such as it was, had lasted all of 15 minutes. Woods closed out his 69 with three textbook pars, for a four-round total of 272.

For Tiger his growing major championship tally is paramount, but the victory had other meaning. This golf season lacked definition until two weeks ago, as the previous majors had gone to a trio of first-time winners and Woods had been looking almost human, having stumbled down the stretch at the Masters and the U.S. Open. And though Tiger had a Tour-best three victories through the end of July, even those performances had been underwhelming, as he shot 38 on the final nine holes at two of them. But before the Bridgestone's final round Tiger found something on the range in the release of his club on the downswing, and he closed with a bogey-free 65 to blow away the field by eight strokes. Though it 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 said at Southern Hills.

Now he has five victories in a season for a record eighth time, and unless Zach Johnson sweeps all four of the upcoming FedEx Cup playoff events, Woods will be player of the year for the ninth time in the last 11 years.

Another nice milestone is that this PGA was Woods's first major win as a father. The dominating performance at Southern Hills should put to rest the notion that being a family man will somehow blunt Woods's competitive edge. This was always a 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 as stubborn and as driven as anyone who has ever picked up a club. If people are saying being a dad is going to affect his game, he'll go the extra mile to make sure it doesn't. That's how he's wired."

Up until now Woods has tried to hide his soft side. At the Bridgestone he was asked if, given his insurmountable lead on the final holes, he had thought of two-month-old Sam Alexis, 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 in the scoring area by showing up with Sam, who was turned out in a shade of her father's traditional Sunday red. Minutes later Woods was back on the 18th green, broiling in the sun for the trophy presentation. Referring to his victorious postround smooches with wife and child, he told the crowd, "That was a feeling I've never experienced," and he got a little choked up in the telling. In a week defined by clever thinking, Woods had found a novel way to beat the heat. "I'm getting chills right now just thinking about it," he said.

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