Austin inspires roars of his own

Austin inspires roars of his own

Woody Austin tugged on his ear to encourage the crowd after his remarkable birdie on the 12th hole.
Robert Beck/SI

TULSA, Okla. — There were a lot of roars rolling through the tall trees of Southern Hills on Sunday afternoon, which made it easy to track the progress of Tiger Woods. One roar was special, though, maybe because it was a little different.

It wasn’t quite as loud, and it was as symbolic as it was energetic. It was for Woody Austin, who holed a 40-foot putt from the fringe for a remarkable birdie on the 12th, the signature hole at Southern Hills. It was a career moment, and it was electric.

With that roar, Austin, a former bank teller, bartender and stockroom clerk, a man who didn’t make the PGA Tour until he was 31, Woods’s current age, let it be known that he had the world’s best player in his sights.

A native of Tampa who lives in the big city lights of Derby, Kan., Austin has fought the yips, injuries, poor vision and fear itself. He once whacked a putter over his head so hard and so many times that the shaft bent over his skull (certain viral video fodder if only existed a decade earlier). But from now on he will be known as the daring runner-up of the 89th PGA Championship.

Many everyman fans will remember that putt at the 12th and the roar that Austin helped along by putting a hand to his right ear and tugging it. He was begging the crowd to give him — and Tiger — more.

“I wanted to hear them,” Austin said later. “You always hear it for him [Woods]. And you hear it for yourself, but it’s immensely different. So I wanted them to keep yelling for me. I wanted him to know that somebody else was out there because even on the front nine when I was playing so good, my roars were nothing like his.”

Austin has won three times on tour, including the Stanford St. Jude this summer when he shot a closing 62, but this was his finest hour. He made the game’s best player work for his victory. He did his best and came up short.

Woods always says, “Second place sucks,” but for Austin second place was fairly sweet because it earned him a spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team. It was vindication for a talented 43-year-old ballstriker who earned enough atta-boys this week to last until the Masters, and who will never again be called a journeyman by any real golf writer.

“This was probably a little more electric because it’s a higher atmosphere than my wins,” Austin said. “The roar on 12 was bigger than anything I had ever heard. To be in this position for the first time and actually give that good of a run at it, I’d be crazy to say that this was not better than the victories.”

The second-place finish was Austin’s best in a major. His closing 67 was his best round in a PGA, and his 274 total was just two behind Tiger. Austin’s sense of self as a golfer, always an issue, has perhaps never been better.

In Austin’s eyes, this title got away on Friday when Woods shot 63 to his 70. He compared their rounds, tee to green, and repeatedly declared that he had outplayed Woods despite being beaten by seven shots.

“Well, like I said on Friday, you cannot give somebody seven shots, especially someone who happens to be the best player in the world,” he said. “I outplayed him and gave up seven shots. That’s why I was disappointed.”

His view of golf is apparently similar to the late Ben Hogan’s, who looked down on putting as a lesser part of the game. The truth is that the game is about scoring, and getting outputted is getting outplayed, like it or not. Austin did not outplay Woods, and the scorecard says so.

Still, Austin has looked more confident with the putter lately. He relied on a tip from Ben Crenshaw to keep a loose grip and relax on Sunday. He made his share, and if he can hole more putts, he can play his way up the world rankings.

Austin has always battled the mental aspect of the game. In 2001, he said, “I’m a mental midget. I can hit any shot, but I never allow myself to do it.” He finished that season 125th on the money list, keeping his tour card and his exemption by $94 over No. 126, Bradley Hughes.

“Maybe at 43 I deal with my nerves better than I did at 32,” he said Sunday. “I don’t think anybody plays any better than I do when I’m on. I know that’s crazy but I think I can hit any shot anybody in the world can hit. But it’s hard to do that when you’re afraid of it, and that’s the fight I have every day.

“People always say, ‘Are you intimidated by Tiger?’ What, are we going to fight? I’m intimidated by the fact that I have a chance to win a golf tournament. I’m not intimidated by any other person. I’m intimidated by the golf.”

On Sunday, Austin made a small mark on the game’s history, and he could do more. The Fed Ex Cup is up next. That’s money, not history. It’s a long eight months until the next major, and in a few weeks, his children, Parker, 9, and Peyton, 7, will go back to school in Derby.

“And I’ll go back to being just Woody,” he said. “This week doesn’t make me Super Dad or a rockstar. I’m just Woody.”

Being just Woody, though, has never looked better.