If someone — anyone — can hang with Woods, Sunday at Hazeltine could be another epic

August 16, 2009

CHASKA, Minn. — Pop singer Paula Cole once had a hit song in which she asked, “Where is my John Wayne? … Where have all the cowboys gone?”

We feel your pain. Our question is similar as we face another potential Tiger Woods major — No. 15, if you’re scoring at home. Our question is this: Where is our Bob May? Where is our Rocco Mediate? Where is our Steve Scott? Where have all the Woody Austins gone?

Tiger’s dominance of the game is a double-edged sword. He has created incredible global interest in golf — or to be precise, interest in Tiger Woods. His legendary persona has put a dent in golf that doesn’t include Tiger, whether it’s the women’s game, senior golf or PGA Tour events where Tiger isn’t playing. Tiger casts a long shadow. It’s a freakin’ solar eclipse, is what it is.

We’ve seen Tiger win majors by absurdly large margins. It’s exciting to be part of it, in a way, but it’s also boring. Golf is a niche sport and to appeal to a larger audience, it needs compelling shows. Tiger waltzing to easy wins is not compelling. He is at his best when he is pushed — sorry, Tiger. So that’s what we’re hoping for Sunday at the 91st PGA Championship.

We’ve long since give up the search for an honest-to-goodness rival for Tiger. There isn’t going to be one. We already established it’s not Ernie Els or Phil Mickelson or Retief Goosen or Vijay Singh or Sergio Garcia or Davis Love III. Tiger is just too damn good, pardon my French.

So we’ll settle for someone, anyone, to challenge him. At least make the man work for the 18 or 20 or 27 major championships that he is apparently and inevitably going to win. That’s all we’re asking.

On Saturday Woods endured a quiet, ineffective round and let his pursuers creep up like cheap underwear. He’s taking a two-shot lead into the final round over Y.E. Yang (your Honda Classic champion) and Padraig Harrington (your defending PGA champion), and a four-shot edge over Henrik Stenson (your Players champion) and Lucas Glover (your U.S. Open champion).

We don’t care who gets it done. We want exactly the same thing that CBS wants — a good show. Tension. Drama. Heroics. A thrilling finish. Can anybody here hang with Tiger?

Harrington sympathizes, to a point. “I get the impression that there’s a lot of people who are cheering me on and wanting me to push him (Tiger) along but they still want Tiger to win,” he says. “They like the idea of, Let’s support the underdog until he catches up, then we’ll support Tiger again. That’s fine with me. I’ll serve my time.”

Players, like the media, tend to think of professional golf as history in the making. On a simpler level, it’s entertainment. Harrington, perhaps the smartest man in golf — sorry again, Tiger — understands.

“Everybody wants to see a battle, I think,” he says. “Everybody hopes the underdog catches up but ultimately, they want the hero to win as usual. That’s the way all the storybooks are written. It’s part of our human nature to support the underdog up until a certain point. If I’m watching a soccer match, I want to see four or five goals and see somebody score in the last couple of minutes, even if I’m watching my own team. It’s nature that people want Tiger to win but they don’t want him to win by three or four shots. They want him to be pushed and tested and to show his skills. I’m happy to fill that role. You never know what can happen over the last nine holes.”

Watching Tiger play majors is like watching the Terminator films. You know John Connor is going to defeat or outlast the machines, you just don’t know how. The same inevitability pervades golf when Tiger has the lead in a major championship. All Tiger has done to build that feeling is win 14 times in a row when he had a 54-hole lead. He’s 47-3 overall when he’s ahead after three rounds. You’ve got a better chance to be elected the next governor of Alaska than you’ve got to beat him here.

Plus, he has dominated the PGA Championship. He has won it four times in 11 tries. That’s impressive but this stat is better. Since 1997, he is 52 under par in PGA Championships. During that time, the next best cumulative total for any player who has played at least 400 holes in a PGA is 3 under par, by Garcia. In other words, Tiger is right at home in this situation.

So where is our Rich Beem of 2009? Beem actually outplayed Woods to win at Hazeltine in 2002.

Let’s start with the guys at three under par. Els got to within a shot of Woods during the back nine Saturday and just when fans were getting excited about an Ernie revival, he finished bogey-bogey-bogey. Five behind Tiger? That’s too tall an order, even for Ernie. Ditto for Swede-swinging Soren Kjeldsen, who bogeyed 16 and 18 to fall back. Fading at the finish is never encouraging.

Stenson and Glover, four back, look more promising. Stenson gets streaky-hot at times, as when he shot a flawless 64 in the final round to win the Players championship. He has hit 29 of the last 36 greens and posted a five-birdie 68. However, he’ll have to do even better on Sunday. Glover is playing like a man with new confidence, which he is, after his Open triumph. He has been under par in each of the first three rounds but to win, he’s going to have to crack the 60s. It’s possible.

Harrington and Yang are Tiger’s most likely challengers. You probably don’t know much about Yang, a native of Korea known for his ballstriking prowess. He won this year’s Honda Classic even though he faltered over the last four holes, but he made a clutch two-putt to ice his victory on the final green. He closed out the Bridgestone Invitational last week with a 69-66 finish to tie for 19th, he has won five times on the Japan tour and he scored his only European tour victory in China when he won the 2007 HSBC Champions, outlasting none other than Tiger Woods. His reputation is good, he just isn’t well known in the United States.

“When he won the HSBC two years ago, he went all the way against big-name players down the stretch and totally outplayed everybody,” Harrington says. “He’s a fine player when he’s in front. That guy knows what he’s doing.”

He’s a total wild card come Sunday. Playing against Tiger in the final round of a major when you’re with him in the final pairing is different. It’s a maelstrom of distractions. Yang has never faced anything of the like and he knows it.

“Tiger has won 70 times now. I’ve only won once so it’s sort of 70 to 1 odds,” Yang said through an interpreter. “I believe in luck and it’s certainly been a lucky year for me so far. It all started from the second stage of Q-school on the last day when I made a seven-foot uphill putt. The confidence just took a turn ever since and that’s why I have one win under my belt now.”

Harrington, you already know. He has won three majors in the last two years. He’s got the game, the smarts, the experience and the drive to stand up to Tiger. He regained the lead from Woods during the back nine last week at Firestone during the Bridgestone Invitational, only to lose the event when he tried a risky (if not ill-advised) flop shot on the 16th green that bounced over the green and into a pond for a triple bogey that handed Woods the victory. But he’s resilient and determined.

Two shots isn’t insurmountable, not even two shots to Tiger Woods. We’re not asking for an upset winner, although given the surprise endings of the first three majors — Kenny Perry coughs up the Masters, Phil Mickelson fumbles the Open, Tom Watson drops the British Open — it shouldn’t be a surprise. That trend could be a good sign for Mr. Yang.

All we’re asking for, as Harrington suggested, is a battle. All we want is for someone to stand up to Tiger and give him a challenge. All we need is someone with true grit. Like, say, John Wayne.


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