No Sweat

May 19, 2009

The first tee at Southern Hills Country
Club is one of the most majestic in golf, perched
high above a serpentine fairway with the Tulsa
skyline looming far beyond. On Sunday, Tiger
Woods arrived on the tee shortly before 2 p.m.
CDT to begin his final round at the 89th PGA
Championship. The temperature was into triple digits, but
Woods looked utterly at ease. The glistening Wanamaker trophy,
which Woods had already claimed three times, was on a pedestal
at the back of the tee box, but he didn’t
even give it a glance. As
Woods settled over his ball, everything
stopped — the swarms of fans, the security
guards with their mirrored sunglasses, the
cameramen with their itchy trigger fingers.
Woods’s presence was as palpable as the

He did not take a practice swing, and why
should he? Woods had been preparing for
this moment all his life. His swing has never
looked more rhythmic or graceful than it
did last week, but the underpinnings of his
action remain athleticism and strength. He
lashed at his ball and propelled it through
the dead air with an audible sizzle. Woods
held his follow-through just a beat longer
than usual, watching his ball trace its towering
arc down the fairway.

They might as well have bronzed him
on the spot.

Woods is making history in real time,
and Sunday at Southern Hills was the latest
opportunity to marvel at his mastery.
The outcome was never really in doubt, but
it was still impossible to look away. It is
riveting to watch the greatest there’s ever
been at the height of his
powers. In a sports world
awash in scandal and
disillusionment, Woods’s
unrelenting brilliance is
one of the few things we can count on.

After that first, perfect tee shot Woods
toured the rest of the course in 68 more
economical strokes, on his way to a twoshot
victory. With Woods the wins are
impressive not only for the aesthetics but
also for their context. The long history of
major championship golf can now be summarized
in three words: Jones, Nicklaus,
Woods. With his 13th Grand Slam victory
Woods tied the career total of the great
Bobby Jones and moved that much closer
to Jack Nicklaus’s epic record of 18. The
thread connecting them stretches back
84 years, to Jones’s triumph at the 1923
U.S. Open. Woods is acutely aware of golf
history and his effect on it. Afterward he
said, “Anytime you’re in conversations with
Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Walter
Hagen” — Nicklaus and Hagen each wona record five PGAs — “it
makes you understand
that you’ve had a nice
run in your career. If you
would have asked me if,
12 years into my career,
would I have had this
many wins and this many
majors, there’s no way.”

To get his latest W,
Woods had to survive an
unforgiving course that
yielded only five totals
under par and scorching
sunshine that sent more
than 200 fans into the care
of medics. For every other
player in the field it wasn’t
the heat but the
humility. As Arron Oberholser said last
Saturday, “He knows he’s going to win.
The scary thing is that maybe he knows
you know he’s going to win.”

Why is Woods so tough to beat? It’s simple,
really: He’s the most gifted athlete on
Tour, the most mentally tough and one of
the hardest workers. That’s been the case
more or less since the day he turned pro in
1996. But now, at 31, he has turned himself
into the game’s cagiest strategist too.

When Woods was in college at Stanford,
he began an enduring friendship with Bill
Walsh, who was coaching the Cardinal football
team at the time. Last Friday a public
memorial was held in San Francisco for
Walsh, who died on July 30 of leukemia.
At the ceremony a telegram from Woods
describing Walsh as almost a second father
to him during his freshman year was read
to the 8,000 fans, former players and Walsh
acolytes in attendance. At Southern Hills
that day, 1,700 miles away, Woods paid
tribute to the old coach with a virtuoso
performance of golf’s version of the West
Coast offense, as he picked apart the course’s
defenses one little swing at a time.

When it was over, Woods had tied the lowest
score at a major championship with a
63, though he called it a 62 1/2 after spinning
out his 15-footer on the final hole. For the
round, Woods made well more than 100 feet
of putts — including a momentum-building 35 footer to
save par after landing in a bunker
on number 12 — and he chipped in at the 14th,
but this 63 was a monument to decisionmakingand
restraint. Woods birdied one
par-3, the 14th, and this is what he hit off
the tee to set up the seven other birdies:
a two-iron, a three-iron, two four-irons, a
five-irons, a three-wood and a driver.

Said Oberholser, who tied for fourth,
seven strokes back, “He just plods along
with such horrifying precision.”

Woods’s ability to outthink
the competition first came into
sharp relief during his masterly
win at last year’s British Open, in which he
used a conservative game plan to navigate
the baked fairways and penal pot bunkers
at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England.
But just as the 1997 Masters was the defining
performance by the young Woods, who
overwhelmed with raw power, this PGA
confirmed his ascension as an unparalleled
tactician. Compared with the relatively expansive
links at Hoylake, Southern Hills
offered far less margin for error. It is a
little bandbox of a course, framed in grabby
bermuda rough with tight, tree-lined fairways
that dogleg in inconvenient places.
There are only two par-5s on a par.70
that stretches to 7,131 yards. The players
compared it last week with Colonial and
Valderrama, two claustrophobic courses
Woods is known to loathe. But if either of
those tracks were to be awarded a major
championship, Woods would surely embrace
their challenges just long enough
to master them.

“You play what the golf course gives you,”
Woods says, “and one thing I’ve learned
about playing over the years is not to go
against that.”

Not that he has become a piker; Woods
still has plenty of power in reserve when
he needs it. During the opening round at
Southern Hills he reached the 653-yard
par-5 5th hole in two mighty blows, the
second of which was a 298-yard threewood
that nestled within 15 feet of the
hole. The ensuing birdie highlighted a 71
that afterward had Woods ruing his missed
opportunities. At one over par he was six
shots off the lead of unknown Englishman
Graeme Storm and four behind the real
story of the first round, John Daly, whose
presence on the leader
board.and inevitable
tumble off of it.helped to further
illustrate Woods’s discipline.

Daly’s combination of power and touch
is in the same class as Woods’s, but that’s
where the comparison ends. Daly arrived
in Tulsa two days before the tournament
started but didn’t
lay eyes on Southern Hills
until Thursday’s first round, preferring to
spend his time (and money) at the nearby
Cherokee Casino. Woods, meanwhile, began
plotting his strategy with a Monday practice
round at sunrise, about 11 hours after
he had won the Bridgestone Invitational,
which was played 900 miles away in Akron.
When the tournament proper began, Daly
mindlessly bashed his way around Southern
Hills, playing a brand of caveman golf in
which he hit driver on nearly every hole,
consequences be damned. He got lucky for
one round, but on Friday, Daly made four
bogeys and a double to shoot 73 and fall six
back of Woods, whose 63 had propelled him
two shots clear of the field.

As Daly continued his fade.he finished
73.73, in 32nd was left to Stephen
Ames, Woody Austin and Ernie Els to give
chase. At various points over the final two
rounds each showed some admirable spunk,
but Woods was unyielding. On Saturday he
played his usual prevent defense, shooting a
coldly clinical 69 to go up by three strokes on
Ames, four on Austin and six on Els. History
was not on the side of the pursuers. Woods
was 23-0 in his career when holding more
than a one-shot lead entering the final round,
and he was 12 for 12 in majors when he had
a lead or a share of it. Even worse news for
Ames: In those dozen victories Woods’s
final-round scoring average was 69.25 versus
72.92 for his playing partners.

“It’s tough to play with Tiger, no doubt
about it,” said Ames on the eve of the final
round. “He’s relentless, constantly making
great shots, making great putts.”

So how do you beat him?

“I don’t know.”

Sunday wound up being slightly more
interesting than might have been predicted.
Ames struggled from the first tee shot — a
crashing hook into the trees that led to a
bogey — and would shoot 76. Beginning at
number 4 Woods birdied three of the next
five holes, punctuated by a curling 30-footer
from the fringe on the 8th that begat a lusty
fist pump. That pushed the lead to a commanding
five strokes, but Woods began
playing a touch too defensively while Els and
Austin kept attacking, making three birdies
apiece early on the back nine. When Tiger
three-putted the 14th hole from 40 feet, his
lead was down to a lone stroke.

Said Woods later, “Going to the 15th tee,
I told myself, You got yourself into this
mess, now go earn your way out of it.”

With renewed aggression Woods covered
the flag with his approach at the 15th, and
the ensuing birdie pushed the lead back to
two strokes on Austin and three over Els,
who up ahead had made bogey on the 16th
after a wild hook off the tee. The challengers
would never creep any closer. The drama,
such as it was, had lasted all of 15 minutes.
Woods closed out his 69 with three textbook
pars, for a four-round total of 272.

For Tiger his growing major championship
tally is paramount, but the victory had
other meaning. This golf season lacked definition
until two weeks ago, as the previous
majors had gone to a trio of first-time
winners and Woods had been looking almost
human, having stumbled down the
stretch at the Masters and the U.S. Open.
And though Tiger had a Tour-best three
victories through the end of July, even those
performances had been underwhelming,
as he shot 38 on the final nine holes at two
of them. But before the Bridgestone’s final
round Tiger found something on the range
in the release of his club on the downswing,
and he closed with a bogey-free 65 to blow
away the field by eight strokes. Though it
was a vintage performance, Woods came
to the PGA knowing what was at stake. “To
have a great year, you have to win a major
championship,” he said at Southern Hills.

Now he has five victories in a season for a
record eighth time, and unless Zach Johnson
sweeps all four of the upcoming FedEx Cup
playoff events, Woods will be player of the
year for the ninth time in the last 11 years.

Another nice milestone is that this PGA
was Woods’s first major win as a father. The
dominating performance at Southern Hills
should put to rest the notion that being a
family man will somehow blunt Woods’s
competitive edge. This was always a spurious
concept, given that Nicklaus won
all 18 of his majors as a dad. Anyway, as
Woods’s friend and neighbor Lee Janzen
says, “Tiger’s as stubborn and as driven as
anyone who has ever picked up a club. If
people are saying being a dad is going to affect
his game, he’ll go the extra mile to make
sure it doesn’t. That’s how he’s wired.”

Up until now Woods has tried to hide his
soft side. At the Bridgestone he was asked if,
given his insurmountable lead on the final
holes, he had thought of two-month-old
Sam Alexis, cooing back at home. “No, not
when I’m out there playing,” Woods said. He
finally allowed himself to get a little mushy
at Southern Hills. Moments after he tidied
up on the 18th hole his wife, Elin, surprised
him in the scoring area by showing up with
Sam, who was turned out in a shade of her
father’s traditional Sunday red. Minutes later
Woods was back on the 18th green, broiling
in the sun for the trophy presentation. Referring
to his victorious postround smooches
with wife and child, he told the crowd, “That
was a feeling I’ve never experienced,” and
he got a little choked up in the telling. In
a week defined by clever thinking, Woods
had found a novel way to beat the heat. “I’m
getting chills right now just thinking about
it,” he said.