Dust off the Tiger Woods highlight reel and add another jaw-dropper, this one near the very top. From a downhill lie, to a green running away from him, and with a wall of water lurking if he went long, Woods knocked in a flop shot for birdie on the par-3 16th hole, one of the most amazing shots of his career, and went on to record his 73rd victory on Sunday.
His fifth win at the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village ties Woods with tournament host Jack Nicklaus for second place on the career victories list, trailing only Sam Snead (82), and gives Woods a surge of adrenaline heading into the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, which begins in 11 days.
“I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot,” Nicklaus said of Woods’s chip-in.
Woods trailed by two with four holes to play, but he birdied three of the last four holes, including the tricky, par-4 18th for a 67 -- tied for the low round of the day -- to get to nine under and beat Andres Romero (67) and Rory Sabbatini (72) by two.
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Third-round leader Spencer Levin (75) and Daniel Summerhays (69) tied for fourth.
Although he technically tied Nicklaus with his 73rd win, Woods, 36, is first among equals. Nicklaus didn’t reach No. 73, at the ’86 Masters, until he was 46. Snead was 43 when he won for the 73rd time on Tour.
Woods and Nicklaus sat in the media room after the tournament, answering questions from the writers and laughing about legacies, broken records and records sure to fall.
“Well, it's special for me to [reach No. 73] here, to do it with Jack here, with his involvement in the tournament and the game,” Woods said.
Replied Nicklaus: “Well, he had to rub it in my face right here, didn't he?”
The writers broke up in laughter.
“No,” Nicklaus added. “If he's going to do it, which he was obviously going to, I'd like to see it happen here.”
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Woods moves to fourth in the World Ranking after authoring a shot that will surely rank first among the week’s golf highlights, if not the week’s sports highlights. The shot on 16, a brutally difficult par 3 that was creating problems for everyone, was vintage Tiger.
After Woods went over the green with his tee shot, CBS Sports analyst Peter Kostis said anything that wound up within six feet of the pin would have been a success. Afterward, Woods said eight to 10 feet would have been fine. But even after four knee surgeries, a tornado of personal turmoil, and much second-guessing of his new swing, Woods proved he is still, on his good days, beyond exceptional. From what he called a “marginal lie,” he took a big swing and watched the ball pop into the air, land softly and trickle toward the hole. It broke both ways and finally tumbled over the front lip on its last rotation, the unlikely birdie detonating a huge roar as Woods delivered his signature upper-cut celebration.
“I went for it,” Woods said. “I pulled it off, and for it to land as soft as it did was kind of a surprise because it was baked out and it was also downhill running away from me. It just fell in. I didn't think it was going to get there at one point. Kind of like 16 at Augusta, I thought I was going to leave it short somehow, and then it fell in.”
Woods came into the week trying to rebound from a blah stretch in which he tied for 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship -- an event he’d won -- and tied for 40th again at the Players Championship. He was still answering questions about his third major swing change as a professional, this one under Sean Foley, that still looked iffy after almost two years of work.
“I just need more reps,” Woods said, but the whispers were growing louder that he needed more than that, that he’d made one major remodel too many.
At Muirfield, though, he was rock-solid, hitting a succession of 3- and 5-woods off the tee that found the short grass, and pelting the greens. He and Charl Schwartzel led the field in greens in regulation, and Woods won for the second time this season, becoming the third man, after Hunter Mahan and Jason Dufner, with multiple wins in 2012.
“I never really missed a shot today,” Woods said.
This marks the fourth time Woods has won both the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Memorial in the same year. He will finish 2012 with multiple wins for the 13th time in his career after not only beating the field at Muirfield, but also outlasting a 102-degree fever Friday and Saturday. The fever finally broke Saturday night.
“When I come here, it's just one of those feelings where I just feel comfortable,” Woods said. “Even though I may be struggling or not, I just have a good feeling of how to play the golf course.”
In short, Woods said, you’d better hit it high if you want to perform at Jack’s place, and Woods and Foley worked on the higher trajectory, among other things, in preparation for the Memorial as well as the upcoming U.S. Open.
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“Yeah, at Bay Hill I was -- I played well on that Sunday,” Woods said, “but I just didn't quite have the control I did today. That was different.”
Although the original Rory -- Rory Sabbatini -- threatened to steal the show Sunday, it was Rory McIlroy who came to the Memorial with nearly as much baggage as Woods. Both players were in the throes of mini-slumps, with McIlroy having missed his last two cuts. Both arrived with their swing coaches, ready to dig it out of the dirt.
“I’m grinding,” McIlroy said on the practice green, before the pro-am.
“I’m right there with you,” Woods said.
And yet with the start of the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club looming, only one of them emerged from Nicklaus’s tournament with any positive momentum. Two days after McIlroy missed his third straight cut with a second-round 79 -- he will try again at this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic -- Woods signaled that maybe he was right after all, that maybe he did just need reps.
What can we glean from the results at Muirfield?
It may be that, like Bay Hill, Muirfield’s deep reservoir of happy memories transported Woods back in time to the player he once was. He’d won the Memorial four times going into this week, just as he’d won six times at Bay Hill coming into Palmer’s tournament in March, when he won an official Tour event for the first time in more than two years.
After his win at Bay Hill, Woods was immediately installed as one of the favorites at the Masters, but his game disintegrated and he never contended at Augusta National. Yet Woods’s tidy golf at the Memorial looked somehow different, too much like the Woods of old to remain skeptical. In his long-running quest to win more than 18 majors, the gold standard set by Nicklaus, Woods has been stuck on 14 since he won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one good leg. But you could see his shots at Muirfield translating well at Olympic—the low, penetrating fairway-wood shots, the crisp iron shots to the greens. In yet another sign that he’s back from the wreckage that was his life two years ago, Nike has begun featuring him in advertisements again.
Woods has come almost entirely through his latest swing change; the only remaining task is to perform in the stultifying pressure of major-championship golf. If and when that happens, Woods, and golf, will be all the way back, and the last 30 months would seem like nothing but a bad dream.