TULSA, Okla. — Tiger Woods had a three-stroke lead when he spoke after the third round about winning golf tournaments.
"I know what it takes," he said, in what may have been the understatement of the week. "You just get a certain feel for what the number's going to be that day. And a lot of times I've called the number."
On Sunday at the 89th PGA Championship, Woods seemed to know exactly what score he would need on win. He was alternately pretty good, great and just good enough. Not at his best on the hottest day of the hottest major on record, a Sunday when the high hit 102 and the heat index 110, Woods shot a one-under 69 to finish eight under and hold off a surging Woody Austin and Ernie Els at Southern Hills.
He was met in the scoring hut by his wife, Elin, and their infant daughter, Sam Alexis, who was attending her first major.
"It's a feeling I've never had before, having Sam there and having Elin there," said Woods, whose fourth career PGA Championship victory puts him one behind Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus. "It feels a lot more special when you have your family there."
Woods wins $1.26 million and increases his victory total in the majors to 13, five behind Nicklaus's record of 18 and equal to that of Bobby Jones, counting Jones's U.S. Amateur victories. (Although it would only seem fair to also include Woods's three U.S. Amateur titles.)
"I just kept telling myself that even though Ernie and Woody were making runs, I still had the lead," said Woods, who remained unbeaten when leading or tied for the lead through 54 holes of a major. "And if I made pars they would have to come get me."
For a while that's what happened, as both Austin and Els made charges, but they ran out of holes just as Woods knew they would.
There have been majors, like the 1997 Masters, and the 2000 U.S. and British Opens, when Woods methodically decimated the rest of the field. There have been majors, like the 2002 Masters, in which Woods's rivals thought they had no margin for error, tried to do too much and imploded. And there have been still more majors, like the 2000 PGA and the 2005 Masters, in which Woods has been tested to the limits of his ability.
The 89th PGA was none of these, but instead was a meditation on perseverance, the importance of a three-stroke lead, and as always with Woods, winning. He encountered little resistance from his playing partner, Stephen Ames, whom Woods had throttled 9&8 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play last year and who bogeyed the first two holes and shot 76, dropping from second place to a tie for 12th.
Instead it was Austin and Els who injected some sorely needed intrigue into the last major of the year. Although Austin outplayed Woods on Sunday, shooting 67 to Tiger's 69, he finished two behind and was left wondering what might have been had he not thrown away a handful of chances Friday, when he felt he outplayed Woods from tee to green but struggled with his putting and was outscored 63-70.
"Like I said on Friday, you cannot give somebody seven shots, especially someone who happens to be the best player in the world," said Austin, whose runner-up finish was his best in a major and earned him a spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team.
Els echoed Austin's comments, saying Woods essentially beat them in the first 54 holes, especially with his 63, which tied the record for the lowest round in major championship history.
"To come from six back against the world No. 1 was always going to be tough to do," said Els, who at the end of the day had cut the margin in half.
Els birdied the 3rd, 5th and 8th holes to get to four under par, only three behind. Woods seemed to sense danger, sticking his approach eight feet behind the pin on the 384-yard, par-4 7th hole and calmly rolling in the birdie putt. The lead was back to four strokes.
Els kept charging, flagging his approach on the 374-yard, par-4 9th, to within five feet of the pin, but Woods had roasted a 2-iron onto the 8th green, a 245-yard par 3. Woods made the 25-foot putt for a birdie 2, detonating a huge roar from the gallery. Els didn't hit the hole with his birdie try. The lead was five.
"I was a bit tentative," Els said of his missed putt on the 9th. "It was downhill and I hit it too soft."
It was quickly apparent Sunday that there were birdies to be had at Southern Hills. Simon Dyson, a 29-year-old Englishman who began the day 13 strokes off the lead, fired a six-under-par 64 to get back to even par for the tournament. He finished in a tie for sixth place with Trevor Immelman (69) and Geoff Ogilvy (69). Arron Oberholser (69) and John Senden (71) tied for fourth at one under.
Woods seemed in control of the tournament after his birdie on the 8th but gave the shot right back with a bogey on the 9th. Meanwhile Els was making birdie on the 10th, and he hit his tee shot on the par-3 11th to within five feet. He was having a round reminiscent of Andres Romero at the British Open, but just as he had on 9, Els missed the short birdie putt on the 11th, hitting it through the break. Still, he kept pushing, with birdies on the 13th and 14th to get to six under, within two.
Austin was making a run, as well, making three straight birdies from holes the 11th to the 13th to get to six under, also two strokes behind Woods.
Meanwhile, the leader was struggling. Woods lost his 3-wood tee shot right on the par-5 13th. He had to lay up short of a pond and blasted his approach into the back bunker. He got up and down for par but three-putted on the 223-yard, par-3 14th hole to drop to seven under, just a stroke in front of Austin and Els.
"I did a serious yelling at myself going to the 15th tee," Woods said, "just to get back into what I do."
Els blasted his drive into the trees on the 507-yard, par-4 16th hole and bogeyed to drop to five under. Woods stuck his approach to within 15 feet on the par-4 15th hole and made the birdie to get back to eight under. His lead was two over Austin, three over Els.
With precious few birdies to be had on the difficult final holes, Woods knew he needed only to par in, which he did.
"I think it's great that Ernie and I didn't just let him coast in," Austin said.
But when Woods retires and we look back at his career, the 2007 PGA will fade into the background. It was not a virtuoso performance, and there was no gruesome pileup at the finish, or even a playoff. This was a victory that the game's greatest player simply gutted out, the kind that's just good enough, but those count just the same.