Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Sunday, with Tiger Woods' long birdie putt rolling toward the 17th hole at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club and Woods on the verge of winning the Buick Open for his 50th Tour title, an apple came tumbling across the green, apparently thrown by a fan. It was something out of miniature golf—dodge apple; win free game—but Woods barely noticed. He made his par, and his point: Nothing can stop him.

Not a Red Delicious, not red-hot Jim Furyk, not a yellow Sergio Garcia nor a packet of purple powder, like the one hurled by a protestor that exploded on the 18th green as Woods was about to capture the British Open at Royal Liverpool last month. Vaughn Taylor made the biggest move up the Ryder Cup standings with a T4 at Warwick Hills, moving from 11th to 7th, but Sunday belonged to Woods. It's starting to look as if all of 2006 will, too, as his 4th victory, with one major, moves him closer to his 8th Player of the Year title.

Woods sampled the frosting from a cake given to him for becoming the youngest player to break the 50-win barrier, having shot four rounds of 66 at Warwick Hills to beat Furyk by three strokes, and will take this week off, as always before a major, before he plays the PGA Championship at Medinah. As the defending champion of sorts, having won the 1999 PGA at Medinah, he will be the heavy favorite next week. Go figure.

"Getting better," Woods said, when asked if he now owns his swing. "You never get there. It's a lifelong ambition to get better, and as an athlete, you're always trying to get better no matter what."

Woods has had plenty of doubters as he's flattened his swing into a late-Hogan homage. He sprays it both ways with his driver, but, amazingly, he's found ways to get around that. In winning the British while using the big stick but once, he accomplished what would be akin to Roger Federer capturing Wimbledon with a wood racquet. Yep, it's a power game now—except when you're so good you can win without it.

Then again, sometimes Woods doesn't find ways to get around his temperamental "big dog" as much as ways find him. He hit one drive on Saturday that hooked, nailed a fan in the hand and bounded back into the 18th fairway. "He really took one for the team," Woods joked.

The world's best player is not what he was under his old coach, Butch Harmon, but he's still the world's best player. Woods is winning for his late father, winning to silence his critics, winning for himself or for his coach or his wife—he seems to have a million reasons to win and even more ways to do it. The world number one is re-asserting his claim to that title, re-conditioning the competition to play for second and restoring his full belief in his bulletproof self—scary, all of it.

We may never see another player erase a seven-shot deficit in seven holes, as Woods did to win the 2000 AT&T at Pebble Beach. Nor will anyone likely replicate what Tiger did at Pebble in the U.S. Open that summer, when, having just switched to a Nike ball, he was the only man to shoot under par 12-under, 15 strokes better than second place.

"That's the most dominant performance at a major ever, by anyone," says Nike Golf President Bob Wood. "He annihilated those guys. It was like hitting them with a skillet. They were like stunned salmon, like they'd been taken out of the water and hit with a bat."

Woods may not win another major by even eight strokes, as he did at the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews, but it doesn't matter, except to fans of brilliant golf. We're learning that. After all Woods has done, dominating with his A- game is the most impressive thing of all.

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