TULSA, Okla. — In the interest of helping out future golf historians, it’s time to try to identify the tipping point of exactly when Tiger Woods won the 89th PGA Championship.
It might have been the 12th hole on Saturday when Woods birdied and Scott Verplank, his closest pursuer, made double bogey, a three-shot swing that widened Tiger’s lead.
It could have been Friday afternoon, when Woods’s last putt inexplicably curled in and out of the cup and he had to settle for only a share of the major championship scoring record with a 63.
Possibly it was over when Woods holed that 30-foot par-saving putt Friday at the 12th, a sure sign that his stroke was on he was firing on all cylinders. He punctuated the moment with a couple of emotional fist pumps.
With no offense to the rest of the field at Southern Hills, the 89th PGA was over the previous Sunday in rainy Akron, Ohio, when Woods played like the 2001 Tiger. He blistered the field and a tough Firestone course with a closing 65. He didn’t even try to make birdie on the final eight holes because he’d amassed an eight-stroke cushion.
That was the three-alarm fire that signaled that Woods had recovered his A-Game. This much is known on the PGA Tour: When Woods plays well, he wins. Not just most of the time, every time. When he plays very well, he wins by a landslide. Woods made it clear in Akron that he was suddenly playing somewhere between well and very well.
But, as the legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins once wrote, “There’s nothing in this world that’s ever dead-solid perfect.” Seabiscuit could always fall down. Gretzky could break his stick. Bonds can be intentionally walked. So here’s a look the few who might have slim hopes of overtaking Woods (-7):
Stephen Ames (-4) He’s paired with Tiger, which is a strike against him. Ames is famous for making a snide (but not necessarily inaccurate) remark about Tiger’s sprayed tee shots, then getting drilled by Woods in the World Match Play Championship, 9 & 8. Unlike Rory Sabbatini, who is 0-2 after making uncomplimentary remarks about Tiger, Ames has learned. Saturday night, he had nothing but praise for Woods and humility for his own game. He was just happy to be in this situation, he said, and learn from the experience. “He’s got a three-shot lead,” Ames said. “Five in front of him might not be enough. I’m just trying to get close.”
I like his chances of beating Woods better than anyone else’s, and I don’t like his chances much. Despite that match play fiasco, I like his edge. He’s got enough ego to believe he can play a good round. He’s been putting much better this week, and when his iron game is on, as it has been, he’s impressive. He dissected the TPC at Sawgrass like Ben Hogan might have when he won the Players Championship in ’06. That’s what it’ll take Sunday because Tiger’s not shooting worse than 70 or 71 (and he’s probably shooting 68).
It would be interesting if Ames — a Trinidad-Tobago native who lives in Calgary and has become a Canadian citizen — could deny Tiger his 13th major. The writers would descend on Woods like vultures. We’d be in a nine-month what’s-wrong-with-Tiger blitz … but it probably won’t happen.
Woody Austin (-3) He’s a pretty good player even though he hates himself most of the time. It’s a ballstriker’s course and he’s a ballstriker. He’s not a putter, though, and that’s always the most important club on Sunday. If he’s got a six-footer to beat Tiger, it would be an interesting test of nerves. Austin is in uncharted territory, and guys in his position just don’t go low.
John Senden (-2) At 42, this Aussie is one of the better iron players on the tour. He came into Southern Hills leading the tour in greens in regulation. Since the course is Mid-Iron Central, it plays to his strength. Senden doesn’t have much experience; he got his first tour win last year at the John Deere Classic, and this is only his second PGA Championship. He’s way out of his league. His ball-striking could carry him to a decent finish, just not a victory.
Ernie Els (-1) The two-time U.S. Open champion’s game is coming around. He’s had trouble putting four good rounds together. In his favor, he racked up five birdies Saturday — that’s more than Woods and Ames made together. He is over his knee injury now and his game and attitude are improving. Is he ready to win another major? It’s difficult to tell. But he’s six shots back, and I think that’s too far.