Not Even Close

Not Even Close

Tiger Woods finished at 23 under par.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ATLANTA — As the Tour Championship was just getting started, Butch Harmon predicted, "As wet as it is out here, and as good as he's playing, Tiger's going to shoot nothing."

He was right. After a ho-hum 64 in the opening round, Woods carded a 63 Friday, including a front-nine 28. He led by three; game over. Yes, Mark Calcavecchia briefly caught him on Saturday, but Woods reeled off three birdies for a 64 to reclaim his three-shot cushion. It was more coronation than competition on Sunday, when Woods shot 66 to win by eight strokes.

And so we're back to the question that's hung over the game for more than a decade: Will the field ever catch up to Woods? Might he come back to them? Couldn't they just meet in the middle somewhere?

"He's not hard to beat if you're playing as well [as Woods is playing] and you're right there [with him]," a brave Woody Austin said on Friday, becoming the latest Tour pro to try to talk himself into beating Woods.

The quote barely made any sense when Austin said it and got more ridiculous from there, specifically when Woods bettered Austin 64-69 on Saturday.

After watching Woods fight his swing while winning the Wachovia in May, Rory Sabbatini said he looked "more beatable than ever."

Woods dusted Sabbatini 65-74 on Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone last month.

Austin and Sabbatini failed to heed the cautionary tale of Stephen (nine-and) Ames.

"Anything can happen, especially where he's hitting the ball," Ames told AP before playing Woods at the 2006 WGC-Accenture Match Play.

Woods beat Ames 9 & 8.

We could concede that Woods will never have an equal. He's too good. But two weeks ago Mickelson beat him eye-to-eye in Boston. That was big. That was huge. Mick the Stick had never before came out on top of Woods while playing with him. What's more, Mickelson hinted that he'd benefited from a few of Harmon's helpful tips for topping Tiger. (Surely an instructional series waiting to happen.)

The coach reportedly told Lefty to note how Woods slowed the pace of his walk in the heat of battle, and how he usually elected to putt out before his opponent. As noted on NBC, Mickelson used the latter tactic effectively at least once at TPC Boston.

But just when it appears the other players are narrowing the gap, Woods pulls away. He decimated the field with a record 22-under-par total at the BMW Championship at Cog Hill, which Mickelson skipped, and kept right on going at East Lake, where his front-nine best ball over the first two days was, ahem, 25. Who's going to beat that?

Not Mickelson. The game he had at the Deutsche Bank apparently dropped out of the cargo hold somewhere in the isosceles triangle of Boston, San Diego and Atlanta.

We sense a trend from Woods's would-be rivals: Fire and fall apart.

Sergio Garcia gave Woods a game at the '99 PGA, Bob May pushed Woods to his limit at the 2000 PGA, and Mickelson overtook Woods while playing ahead of him at the 2000 Tour Championship. Ernie Els battled Woods to a draw in the dark at the 2003 Presidents Cup. Vijay Singh beat Woods head-to-head to take his No. 1 ranking at the 2004 Deutsche Bank.

Each time, we rushed to judgments more hopeful than sound.

Woods has a rival, and he is Garcia.

No, he is the happy little scrapper with nothing to lose and many names: Ed Fiori, Costantino Rocca, May, Rich Beem.

No, no, no, Woods's rival is definitely Els.

Ooh, it's Singh now. Definitely Singh.

Like we said, it's quite obviously Mickelson.

And when Woods finds his game, as he has in winning four of his last five starts, his competitors look like plankton bouncing off a supertanker, and we are forced to rethink our prior conclusion.

Woods has a rival? No. Strike that. It's preposterous. He has no rival.

Mickelson looked and sounded like he was ready to really push Woods this time, especially when he said in Boston, "The next step is to do it in a major."

Actually, the next step was to do it at East Lake, but the world No. 2 tripped over his shoelaces at the starting line. Playing just ahead of Woods, who birdied his first three holes, Mickelson went 3-over for his first five Thursday. It's lucky there was a three-hour rain delay, or the 2007 Tour Championship would've ended in just 60 minutes.

Fiori's retired, Rocca hasn't played stateside in years, May has a trick back and Beem's brilliance is as unpredictable as it is infrequent. Garcia needed to win the British to heal his fragile psyche, Singh looks his age and Els played like he'd rather be someplace else last week.

Meanwhile Woods keeps racing along at his own personal par of 66.7 since the beginning of August. We come back to the notion that his rival has not been born, or at the very least hasn't got his Tour card. Sigh.

It's not all bad news. Mickelson might get the chance to beat him at Ping-Pong at the Presidents Cup. Or not. Either way, he'll always have Boston.

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