Shrinking margins make it that much tougher for Tiger's foes to prosper

Shrinking margins make it that much tougher for Tiger’s foes to prosper

Woods is heavily favored to win every time he tees it up.
Robert Beck/SI

When J.B. Holmes rolled in a 14-foot par putt on the fourth hole last Wednesday to maintain a 2-up lead on Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1 player quickly turned his back and began stroking practice putts at the back of the green.

The pin would be set back there later in the week at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and the message from Woods was clear: You may be ahead now, but you're the one who's going home tonight.

It was hardly presumptuous. Woods is heavily favored to win every time he tees it up, and Holmes, despite prevailing in sudden death against Phil Mickelson at the FBR earlier this year, seemed like the type who might get nervous.

But when Woods spun his third shot off the front of the green on the par-5 fifth hole, and Holmes converted a short birdie putt, Woods was was 3 down through five holes. Tiger knocked his par putt in for the hell of it but didn't check out future pin locations. It was starting to look like he'd never see those pins.

It was easy on Sunday, after Woods's 8-and-7 rout of Stewart Cink in the final, to forget that he had been in such a deep hole in his first match. But let the record show that the outcome was not a foregone conclusion until it became clear on Sunday morning that Cink would be no match for Woods.

Woods trailed in three of six matches and twice avoided elimination against Aaron Baddeley on Friday by dint of sheer luck. Surely Baddeley cannot be faulted for missing his hard-swinging, right-to-left birdie putt on 18, even though it was only 10 feet. But the underdog Aussie will forever look back on the relatively flat 12-footer for eagle that he missed on the first extra hole, again letting Woods off the hook until Tiger could slam the door on the 20th hole.

At day's end, Baddeley had made 10 birdies, Woods 12. It was another reminder of the brutal calculus of modern golf: Woods needs to play well to win, but his opponents must play flawlessly, or in Baddeley's case, better than that.

Stopping Woods is now a unifying goal among his peers, the most obvious commonality on Tour besides collared shirts. They will be able to look back on one big mistake at the match play that helped Woods to his eighth victory in his last nine starts worldwide and his 63rd PGA Tour win. (He passed Arnold Palmer and moved into fourth alone on the all-time list, behind Ben Hogan's 64, Jack Nicklaus's 73 and Sam Snead's 82.)

More than Baddeley's missed chances, it was Holmes's convulsive bogey on the par-4 15th hole Wednesday that stands up as the tournament's pivotal moment.

Having birdied the par-3 14th to get back to 2 down, Woods chose to hit 3-wood off the 15th tee but stopped mid-swing, as only he can, when the door of a portable toilet shut behind him. After regrouping, he laced his patented stinger down the fairway. Holmes missed in the right rough.

Woods hit his approach shot about 17 feet left of the pin, a so-so effort. He walked a bit down the fairway and then took off his cap and waited for his opponent.

Holmes's approach flew at the flag but trickled onto the back fringe, 36 feet behind the pin. What happened next changed everything. Holmes hit his first putt way too hard, the only nervous-looking shot of the day. It went by the hole and kept rolling, finally settling 29 feet behind the cup. He was still away.

Holmes's exploding putt on 15 was the first sign that Woods wouldn't have to get out of this mess all by himself. The effect as Tiger's eyes locked onto Holmes's ball trickling past the pin — statue still, only the eyes moving — was that of a real tiger eying a three-legged goat.

Holmes missed the come-backer, leaving Woods with two putts to win the hole. He made birdie anyway, for the style points. Even without that turn of events, Woods may have made the 22-footer for birdie on 16 and the 36-footer for eagle on 17. Afterward, though, Woods called 15 the turning point.

It gave him some room to breathe, some peace of mind in knowing that he was only 1 down with three to go.

The margin for error when playing Woods is that razor-thin. One badly misjudged putt led to Tiger's theatrics over the next two holes, which begat the second-round victory over Arron Oberholser, the shoot-out with Baddeley and the quarter- and semi-final knockouts of K.J. Choi and Henrik Stenson, the defending champion. It all ended with the demolition of Cink.

Holmes had one last shot at squaring the match, but he missed a short birdie try on 18. He looked at the ball a long time before shaking Woods's hand and walking away.

Luke Donald was puttering around the practice green behind 18. "Nice try," he said.

"Thanks," Holmes replied with a smile.

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