CHASKA, Minn. (AP) — Tiger Woods used to say it was only a great year if he won a major. He has one shot left at the PGA Championship, yet he already has rendered his verdict.
“It’s been a great year either way,” Woods said Tuesday.
He already has five victories on the PGA Tour, pushing his career total to 70 last week at Firestone. His timing could use some improvement, for Woods arrived at Hazeltine having already completed the “Pre-Slam” – winning all four of his tournaments before a major.
His reference point is the PGA Championship a year ago, when he was home in Florida just learning to walk again after surgery on his left knee to rebuild the ligaments. Woods knew that he would play again. He just wasn’t sure what to expect.
A scoring average that is a full stroke better than anyone else?
“For me to come back and play, and play as well as I’ve done and actually win golf events … to be honest with you, I don’t think any of us would have thought I could have won this many events this year,” he said.
It’s not as though he is abandoning thoughts on winning at Hazeltine and joining Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen with five victories in the PGA Championship. For the first time, Woods is ending a three-week stretch of competition at a major. What makes him a heavy favorite, besides his obvious skill, is winning the last two times he has played.
He played a final practice round Tuesday morning, and found the full measure of Hazeltine at 7,674 yards and a par 72. Walking along the fairways, he couldn’t help notice pitch marks in the grass, evidence of the soft conditions from weekend rain.
The 12th hole is now 518 yards, matching the longest par 4 in PGA Championship history. Woods belted a driver down the fairway, and still needed every bit of a 3-iron to get to the green.
And he’s one of the longer hitters.
Rees Jones was involved in the changes, and Rich Beem offered one idea how he went about his work.
“I think Mr. Jones went down to every tee box and looked down every fairway, and turned around 180 degrees and just started walking,” said Beem, who won the ’02 PGA at Hazeltine when it was 7,355 yards. “This thing is just long. I mean, it’s just excessively long, and it’s nowhere near the golf course that it was. But it’s the state of the modern game, I guess. In order to make it harder, just make it longer.”
PGA Championship director Kerry Haigh has drawn praise in recent years for moving the tees to give players variety, so it might not play its full length each day.
Beem remembers only playing some of his best golf seven years ago, winning his only major. He closed with a 68, including a 35-foot birdie putt for a lead that was big enough to withstand Woods’ run of four straight birdies.
Woods was trying that year to become the first player to win the “American Slam” – all three majors in the United States. The setting is far different this year, even if the argument can be made he is playing even better.
He has finished out of the top 10 only twice this year – a tie for 17th in the Accenture Match Play Championship when he was eliminated in the second round, his first competition in eight months, and a missed cut in the British Open.
It was only the second time in three years Woods didn’t play the weekend – both times at a major – although Turnberry now seems longer ago than a month. His average score the last two weeks is a 67, leading to a three-shot win at the Buick Open and a four-shot victory at the Bridgestone Invitational.
“I feel as if I made some pretty good strides since the British Open,” Woods said. “I think it was evident the way I was hitting the golf ball last week. I really hit it good last week, and hopefully, I can improve on that.”
The entire year, in some respects, has been in a work in progress.
Woods hit the ball poorly at the Masters, where he tied for sixth, which he attributed to his left knee not being strong enough for practice sessions after his round. That changed a month later, and he hit the ball beautifully at Bethpage Black. His tie for sixth at the U.S. Open was more a product of being unable to make a putt.
The British Open remains a mystery. Woods had every part of his game fall apart over a six-hole stretch that he played in 7 over – a lost ball off a bad drive, a bad iron over a green, poor chips and missed putts – and he never recovered.
Not much has changed, however, in the eyes of his competition.
Someone asked British Open champion Stewart Cink to assess Woods’ chances going into the final major of the year.
“I’d say he’s got a pretty good chance – probably better than anybody else in the field. How’s that for an answer?” Cink said with a smile. “I mean, he’s driving it pretty well. He’s got a short game that history has never known. He’s got the clutch putting that history has never known. And he’s got the ultimate tank of confidence to draw form. So case closed.”
This is the sixth time Woods has come to the PGA Championship without a major championship to his name. He won 10 years ago at Medinah in a duel with Sergio Garcia, and he won two years ago at Southern Hills, where he tied a record with his 63 in the second round.
The other three years, Woods ended the year feeling empty. He says that won’t be the case this time.