He has less hair but more muscle. He lost his father but found a bride. He’s trading in his town house on the Isleworth driving range for a mansion on the Atlantic. On the golf course he drives it longer though not quite as straight, his putting is streakier, his iron game sharper, his course management more refined.
The Tiger Woods who won the PGA Championship last week at Medinah Country Club is a different player and person from the kid who took the PGA at Medinah in 1999, but seven years later there are intriguing parallels. The ’99 PGA remains one of the most momentous of Woods’s 51 career Tour victories. It was his second major championship triumph, 2 1/2 long years after his breakthrough at the ’97 Masters. Razing
Augusta National had turned Woods into a cross-cultural icon, but the ’99 PGA confirmed him to be a player for the ages, and it was the jumping-off point for the greatest golf ever played. From Medinah, Woods roared into a 2000 season in which he won nine tournaments, including three consecutive majors, taking the U.S. and British Opens by a combined 23 strokes.
The march to Medinah in ’99 had begun with a famous phone call in May of that year from the range at the Byron Nelson Classic. Two years into a major swing reconstruction, Woods rang his then instructor, Butch Harmon, and said simply, “I got it.”
In the wake of his latest victory at Medinah, Woods appears to have ramped up for a stretch that may be every bit as dominant as the golf he played in 2000. The latest streak also began with a practice session, this one in Chicago, following an opening 72 at last month’s Western Open. The Western was Woods’s first event since he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and he was straining to find his form in a season that had been torn asunder by the death of his father. He set up shop on the range at Cog Hill with his instructor, Hank Haney, with whom he had embarked on yet another swing overhaul two years ago, and in a 2 1/2-hour session they focused on the flaw that had been tormenting Woods: his tendency to cock his head to the left on the backswing and then rock it back to the right on the downswing, upsetting his balance and timing. The enduring image from that grueling session was of Haney’s left hand pressed against the right side of Woods’s face, keeping his head stable while Tiger focused on rotating smoothly around his spine.
That long afternoon “turned it all around,” Woods says, speaking of both his swing and his season. He followed at the Western with rounds of 67-66-68 to surge into second and propel himself to the British Open with much-needed momentum.
Woods has always been so tough to beat because on the PGA Tour he is the most physically gifted athlete and the mentally toughest, the hardest worker and the guy who wants it most. Now that he has entered his 30s he has become an even smarter, more disciplined player. Woods said this summer that Roger Federer is one of his favorite athletes and that he admires his mastery of different playing surfaces. That same adaptability has been apparent during Woods’s current three-tournament winning streak. At the British Open he played an uncharacteristic brand of pinpoint small-ball, plotting his way around Hoylake with frightening efficiency. His next time out Woods destroyed the field at the Buick Open, racking up a career-best 28 birdies as he overpowered Warwick Hills Country Club.
Last week at Medinah he combined the best of both worlds, as he alternately attacked and maneuvered around the longest golf course in major championship history, which had been softened by a meek setup and Friday night rain. On Medinah’s twisty par-4s he prudently shaped five-woods and three-irons off the tee, but he let the dog out on most of the four par-5s, which he played in nine under. The missing piece for Woods was his putting. At Hoylake he prevailed even though he had three three-putts on the back nine on Saturday, typical of an uneven year on the greens.
“With all this focus on his swing, it’s the one thing that’s gone neglected,” Haney said last week of Woods’s putting. “But he’s worked hard on it, and it’s starting to show.”
Woods’s putter repeatedly saved him at the PGA, particularly over the first two rounds, when he was in scramble mode while hitting only 15 of 28 fairways. On Saturday he jump-started his round with a 25-footer to save par on the 1st hole, eliciting a violent fist-pump. A ball-striking clinic ensued, and Woods’s 65 tied the course record and sent shock waves through the grounds at Medinah. Moments after finishing his third round, U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy looked back toward the 18th green, where Luke Donald faced a long birdie putt. Said Ogilvy, “We need Luke to make this putt so Tiger doesn’t have the lead. Because when he has the lead, he wins.” Donald missed, meaning he and Woods would be tied for the lead heading into the final round. The desperation Ogilvy felt is born from the numbers. Going into the PGA, Woods was 36 for 39 in closing out when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, including 11 for 11 in the majors.
Woods wasted no time in burnishing his legend on Sunday. He brushed in a 12-footer for birdie on the 1st hole to take sole possession of the lead and just kept going. When he made a 40-foot bomb on number 6 his cushion was three strokes. Another 40-footer on 8 pushed his lead to four.
“I had one of those magical days on the greens,” Woods said on Sunday evening. “I just felt like if I got the ball anywhere on the green, I could make it. It’s not too often you get days like that, and I happened to have it on the final round of a major.”
When Woods birdied the 11th hole out of the rough, his lead was five strokes, and the rest of the back nine became an extended trophy ceremony, recalling the old days when he routinely snuffed the life out of tournaments and the other players. By the time Woods tidied up his closing 68, he had made only three bogeys for the week. His final tally of 18 under tied the PGA Championship scoring record, of which he already owned a piece, from 2000, when he also set scoring records at the U.S and British Opens.
Is he playing at the same level as six years ago?
“Yes. Yes,” Woods said during the champion’s press conference. “With [six years of] added experience, and understanding how to get myself around a golf course and how to control my emotions and all the different shots I’ve learned since then, yeah, I feel like things are pretty darned good right now.”
Which is, of course, bad news for everybody else. Just ask Sergio Garcia. He burst onto the scene at the ’99 PGA, a fearless 19-year-old who lit up Medinah with a Sunday rally that fell one stroke short. That was supposed to position Sergio as Butch to Tiger’s Sundance, but he has not matched Woods’s unrelenting improvement. Garcia hung around the leader board all week but finished in a distant tie for third, another letdown in a career full of them. If the enduring image of Sergio circa 1999 is his joyous scissors kick, seven years later he was a muttering, head-shaking picture of frustration.
Garcia was not the only player to leave Medinah feeling dispirited. As Woods was slowed by his 2004 swing changes and then the failing health of his father, nobody took greater advantage of the lulls than Phil Mickelson. But now, suddenly, he has been thrust back into the familiar role of not being good enough. Mickelson got to see firsthand how he stacks up, as over the first 36 holes he was paired with Tiger. On Thursday the two shared a little forced chitchat and matching 69s. That’s an excellent score at any major, but the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times captured the collective disappointment that there were not more fireworks: underwhelming. Mickelson was thoroughly outclassed during the second round, as Tiger shot a bogeyless 68 while Phil sprayed his ball all over Illinois en route to a 71. A closing 74 would leave Mickelson in 16th place, 12 strokes back of Woods. On Sunday, Phil was asked to put into perspective his archrival’s 12th major championship. “It’s pretty good,” he said, curtly ending the discussion.
Those dozen victories have pushed Woods two thirds of the way up Mount Nicklaus. A few years ago Jack’s record of 18 career major championships looked insurmountable; now, with Woods having bagged four in the last two years, the shattering of golf’s greatest record seems inevitable, and sooner rather than later.
“Well, it’s still a long way away,” says Woods, who made his Tour debut 10 years ago this week. “It took Jack over 20 years to get to his. As I’ve said, it’s going to take a career, and I’ve just got to keep plugging along and keep trying to win these things. But these are the most fun events to play in, the major championships. I thoroughly enjoy coming down the stretch on the back nine with a chance to win. That’s why I practice as hard as I do. It’s what I live for. That to me is the ultimate rush in our sport, [to be] on that back nine on Sunday with a chance to win a major.”
In ’99, when the final putt had dropped, Woods slumped over his flatstick, weary from the 2 1/2 years it had taken to validate his epic Masters win. This time he seemed determined to enjoy the moment. After the stultifying formal awards ceremony he picked up the oversized Wanamaker Trophy and marched across the 18th green to shake his bauble at a raucous grandstand. A little while later Woods was spirited into a hot, crowded room within Medinah’s majestic clubhouse for the traditional victor’s champagne toast with the PGA of America brass. The white-haired official presiding over the ceremony first called upon Woods’s wife, Elin. She likes to avoid the spotlight, and as Elin arrived on stage her cheeks were the same color as her crimson stanford T-shirt. Mrs. Woods was presented with a pendant adorned with the PGA logo. Then Tiger got a present of his own — an honorary membership to Medinah, a club that joins the august company of Augusta National and St. Andrews as the only courses on which Woods has won multiple major championships. Stepping to the microphone, Woods shouted, “I love this place!” He added that he was already looking forward to the 2012 Ryder Cup matches at Medinah. “Hopefully I’ll make the team,” he said, breaking up the room. Finally it was time to toast his illustrious past and seemingly endless future. Woods downed his tall glass of champagne in one greedy gulp.