A few years back, I first wrote how Tiger Woods had done something that no other golfer — not Nicklaus or Hogan or Jones or Watson — had ever done. He had made golf look easy. And by easy, I don’t mean effortless — though, of course, Tiger can make golf look effortless. I mean something else: He has taken out golf’s elements of chance. He has removed the degree of difficulty. He has turned this big, sprawling, perplexing and ever-evolving game into something simple, something definitive. Something that makes sense.
Golf was never supposed to make sense. It was always supposed to be this wild ride in the wind. It was always supposed to be about holding up under pressure and taking your medicine and enjoying the lucky bounces and playing the ball where it lies. “There was only one time in my life when I went into a tournament knowing I was going to win and then won it,” Tom Watson once told me. When I asked him what tournament, he refused to say. It’s his happy secret. It’s the one time he beat this mysterious game.
But, Tiger seemed to feel that way all that time. He boiled the game down to stark and powerful basics. If you make all your 12-foot par putts, you will make no bogeys. If you have practiced a shot for every occasion, then you will never have an occasion without a shot. If you turn double bogeys into bogeys and bogeys into pars, if you chip in more than most and often hit the ball close from the middle of the fairway, if you win all the tournaments you lead on Sunday and you play well enough to lead on Sunday all the time, well, there’s just not much mystery left in the game. Tiger had been trained from a young age and later trained himself to play golf this way, without sentimentality, without reserve and without miscalculations. Nobody else in the world could play golf like that. Sometimes Tiger would just not play well. But mostly he did, and when he did, there were really only two possibilities. Tiger would either beat you, or you would beat yourself. Either way … same thing.
And so, on the 17th green Sunday at the PGA Championship, it seemed entirely certain that one of those two things would happen to a 37-year-old golfer from Korea named Y.E. Yang. Tiger would beat him, or Yang would beat himself. The two choices. The only surprising thing was that it had taken this long to get to the choices. Yang had spent a wonderful afternoon in Minnesota smiling and waving to the crowd and making good shots and riding the top of the leaderboard. At the 17th, he led Tiger Woods by a stroke. The announcers on television had spent much of the afternoon marveling at Yang’s calm — commenting at great length about his composure (“He seems cool as a cucumber!”), his vital signs (“He’s breathing well!”), his mental state (“Positive body language!”) and his sense of well being (“Look at him smiling!”). It was fun. It could not last.
Yang’s good play — especially while other more famous golfers like Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh self destructed — was surprising, but probably less surprising than the tentative way Tiger Woods played. That was a thunderbolt. He laid up on a Par 5. He left putts short. He seemed utterly unlike the predator that we had come to know — all afternoon long he backed off shots and tossed blades of grass into the wind. All afternoon long, everyone just waited for Tiger to take over, to hit some kind of definitive shot, to turn Y.E. Yang into another in a long line of noble but defeated opponents. But Tiger wavered. He waffled. Which way is the wind blowing? He hit great shots, of course, because he’s Tiger Woods. But, he lacked conviction.
And it was Yang, at the 14th hole, who hit the definitive shot. He chipped in for eagle with Woods’ ball just 12 feet away from birdie. That remarkable chip gave Yang a two-shot lead. The announcers exclaimed that Woods was “shocked,” and maybe he was but you could not see it on his face. He stepped up to his own ball and knocked in his own birdie putt to immediately cut the margin to 1 shot. Woods then walked toward the 15th hole with a determined stride, as if he was just about ready to put away all the foolishness. “They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain/And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.”
One thing about Tiger … he’s always had this remarkable sense of time. I don’t mean TIMING, though of course Woods has always had great timing too — he tends to know when a great shot will be a dagger, when a sunk putt will drain his opponent of hope. This is part of what makes him such a great match-play golfer.
But here I mean a sense of time. Woods seems to know that eventually his moment and his chance will present itself. I often think about this game I saw Larry Bird play once in the late ’80s or early 90s — a meaningless NBA regular season game in Charlotte. Bird wasn’t himself by then; his back was hurting and he was more legend than star. But he was still awfully good, and what struck me that day was that while everyone else on the floor was playing the game live, Bird was playing it on rewind. He played as if he had already seen the game before and knew how it turned out. There was utterly no tension in his game, no anxiety, no break in his rhythm. When he missed a shot, he acted as if that was just PART OF THE PLAN — like the Celtics needed that missed shot to win. Same with every turnover, every foul, every brilliant pass, every timeout. It wasn’t as if Bird was controlling the game — he wasn’t quite good enough to control at that stage of his career. No, it was like he was an actor in a movie and he had already read the script.
That’s what we have seen from Tiger Woods … it’s like he has already read the future sports history books that recount his many triumphs. Whatever happens, he seems at peace with it because he knows that he will win in the end. Oh, so this guy Yang chips in at 14 to take the lead? Well, that will just make my victory that much more dramatic. The drama kept going through the 15th hole, the 16th hole, there were missed putts and groans from the crowd and an endless string of commercials promoting a 60 Minutes interview with Michael Vick. Yang still led by one shot. Then, the 17th hole, Yang hit his shot on the green but well short of the flag. Woods, sensing the moment, went after the flag. He hit it too hard, and the ball skipped into the thick rough. A mistake, yes. But still, the moment was palpable. Everyone could feel it. Nick Faldo could not help but mention Watson’s famous chip-in on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Well, time had come. Woods knew it. Yang knew it. The crowd knew it.
Woods popped up his chip, leaving it a dozen feet short of the hole.
The announcers gawked. What was that? What happened? That was what Tiger Woods had been saving? That was what he would deliver in the big moment? But … remember what I said about Woods sense of time. He knows that in golf — in all of sports — there’s usually a second chance. Yang stepped over his 30-foot putt, and suddenly that smile that had been so talked about was gone, suddenly the easy breathing that others had noticed looked a bit labored. What makes major championship golf fun is that, most of the time, there will come the time when the golfer is stripped bare. Yang had been wonderful. But now he was a 37-year-old Korean golfer who had never contended in a major championship before. He hit an absolutely dreadful putt and left the ball about 8-feet short.
And then, everyone understood. THIS was actually the moment. Woods would make hit par putt. Yang would miss his. They would be tied going into the 18th hole. And then, well, then the predictable would happen, just like always. It was so clear as Tiger lined up his putt, so blindingly obvious. In that instant it was almost painful to think about all the emotions that everyone had invested in Yang. You know, he had not started playing golf until he was 19 years old. He went into the South Korean army, then moved to New Zealand to become a professional golfer. He had moved to America to try his luck. He had been one of the older golfers to go through the Q school. He was ranked 110th in the world. On this Sunday, he had been one heck of a Rocky Balboa. But in the only Rocky movie that makes sense, Rocky loses the fight.
Tiger stepped over his ball and you knew the 12-foot putt was in before he even began his backswing. You knew, I knew, the crowd knew, the announcers knew, Yang knew. Of course it was going in. This is what I mean about Tiger Woods making the game easy. Humans miss long putts more than they make them. The best golfers in the world — the best golfers ever in this world — fail more than they succeed. Nicklaus won 18 major championships, but he finished second 19 times. But Tiger does not fail. He does not miss these putts. Maybe some weeks doesn’t have it. But when he is right, when he is in position, he win every time. Every … single … time. There was absolutely no doubt that he would make this putt, make the necessary shots at 18 or in the playoff, would win the tournament, and he would march on undaunted and unscathed …
Only then, that remarkable thing happened — remarkable because it’s unremarkable. Tiger Woods missed the putt. Flat missed it.
And suddenly, golf wasn’t easy. Tiger Woods missed. Like people miss. It didn’t matter then that Yang missed his putt too (as Tiger surely knew he would). Yang still had a one-shot lead going into the 18th hole. And his smile was back. His moment of self realization had passed. Tiger Woods had missed the putt, and he had missed his moment, and Yang hit a spectacular shot into the 18th hole, birdied it, won the PGA Championship in glorious fashion. There was talk about how this would change the face of golf forever because Yang became the first Asian man to win a major championship. The people who love golf in Korea and China and Japan and Indonesia and so on … suddenly they have a golfing hero, someone who has shown them what’s possible.
I was left thinking about something else, though. I was left thinking how Y.E. Yang had left Tiger Woods muttering about missed putts. “Today was not very good at all,” he grumbled. “I had a few misreads out there, and I hit some bad putts as well.” Yes, this day left Tiger Woods sounding a bit like everyone else. And there is mystery in the game. Golf — and this is a good thing — makes no sense again.
Joe Posnanski writes for SI.com and blogs at joeposnanski.com.