Still a Tossup
TULSA, Okla. — It seemed like 2000 again in Akron, Ohio, on Sunday, when Tiger Woods won the Bridgestone Invitational by eight strokes, lapping the field at Firestone Country Club. It was the sixth time he's won on Firestone's South Course.
"This may be my home away from home," Woods said after his bogey-free final round of 65.
In fact he could say that about several of the PGA Tour's venues. Woods, who will defend his title at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills this week, feels at home at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago, where he won the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships. Augusta is Tiger's home away from home; he's won the Masters four times. La Jolla, Calif., is like home; he's won the Buick Invitational five times, including the last three straight. Orlando really is Tiger's home, not just because he won Bay Hill three straight years from 2000 to 2002. And on and on it goes. Pebble Beach was like home when he played the AT&T. Dublin, Ohio, was like home when Woods won the Memorial from 1999-2001.
And no matter where he plays, he always has the biggest crowds cheering him on.
"Even the days when I haven't felt good about my game," Woods continued Sunday, "they're always out there supporting me [at Firestone]."
Did Woods not feel good about his game going into last week? He did afterward, but he's so mastered certain courses that he can win even without his A-game. He made no bogeys on Sunday, but he also made a par off some woman's rain poncho. That was the Tiger we remembered from the British Open at Carnoustie three weeks ago, when he had only fleeting control over his driver and, more alarmingly, his irons. He tied for 12th but never really contended. Before his dominant round Sunday, he hadn't won since May 6.
Southern Hills, which hosts its seventh major championship this week, has not exactly been a home away from home for Woods. He tied for 12th at the 2001 U.S. Open here, along with such other luminaries as Matt Gogel, Michael Allen and, ahem, Sergio Garcia. Among other features that don't necessarily favor Woods, Southern Hills has only two par-5s.
"It's not the longest course we play," said Stewart Cink, who finished third, one shot out of the playoff between winner Retief Goosen and Mark Brooks in 2001. "It's not a course that's about hitting your driver as far as you can hit it. It's winding, it's slopey, there are a lot of holes where you have to shape your shot around the dogleg. That's what's great about Southern Hills."
The course will play to a par 70 this week as opposed to a par 71, with some monstrously long par 4s. The greens will be different, most notably the 18th, which has been re-contoured after players complained about it in '01. But it's still Southern Hills, the kind of track that suits shot-shapers like Brooks and yes, Goosen, diminishing if not negating the usual advantage of Woods and the other long knockers. The course received 10 weeks of rain in the spring, which has given way to 100-degree temperatures and humidity this summer, which means the rough will be as gnarly as the PGA of America wants to make it.
Woods can win anywhere, as his 58 Tour victories attest, and he's hungry, having been skunked in the year's first three majors. He toured the Tulsa course last Tuesday before heading to Akron. Still, any number of players would seem to have a chance to win this week. Reigning U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera tied for seventh in the '01 Open here, and he comes into this week with way more confidence than he had six years ago. Phil Mickelson, always an enigma, also tied for seventh, as did Vijay Singh, who finished second at the Canadian Open two weeks ago and has twice won the PGA. Garcia could contend again this week if he rediscovers the putting stroke he had at Carnoustie. Tom Lehman won a Tour Championship at Southern Hills.
Heck, even Rocco Mediate — yes, Rocco Mediate — has a chance. He was fourth here in '01. Chris DiMarco finished tied for 16th in '01 and needs a good showing in the final week to make the U.S. Presidents Cup team on points. He finally seems to be rounding into form with a tie for fourth at Firestone last week.
Alas, so much speculation could be a moot point. It's tempting to say this PGA is already over when a certain golfer starts winning tournaments by a touchdown and a two-point conversion. That's what Woods did during his jaw-droppingly dominant stretch of golf from 1999-2001. He won 22 tournaments over that span, but guess what tournament he didn't win during that magical run? Guess what ended his "Tiger Slam" run of four straight majors?
The 2001 U.S. Open. At Southern Hills.