AKRON, Ohio — Forget the other 72 players in the Bridgestone Invitational field. They never had a chance. Tiger Woods probably even overshadowed the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend in nearby Canton once he put the nation's cable networks on 59 Watch Friday and subsequently posted what would have to be called a disappointing 61, if there is such a thing.
This weekend at vaunted Firestone Country Club was a good reminder of just how big Tiger Woods is, just how big he is when he wins and just how close we are to a full-fledged return of TigerMania at any given moment.
Tiger matters. More than anyone else in golf, Tiger matters. All Tiger all the time, it's more than just a saying. It's our reality.
"It's always interesting to see how when Tiger Woods gets a big lead, he gets a bigger audience," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Sunday during a press conference to announce a four-year extension of Bridgestone's tournament sponsorship. "People want to see how big the lead can be. As I was coming in here from the airport this morning, I was told that I should expect to be delayed because of the great crowds. That's the bad news I always like to hear."
Tiger owns this town — no wisecracks about it being the Rubber City, please. Finchem was right about the crowds. The weekend's throngs were as big or bigger as any I've seen here in twenty-plus years of covering this event. They came to see Tiger, of course, not Jason Dufner or Chris Wood.
There is no doubt that Tiger owns the Bridgestone Invitational and this course. His latest stroll through 72 holes at Firestone, capped by a final-round 70 for a seven-stroke victory, was simply a continuation of his domination. Pardon my urge to add, Duh!
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Lets see, that makes eight wins here. Eight. That's two more victories than Matt Kuchar has in his career. It's also the same number of wins Tiger has posted at Bay Hill, and the same number of times that Sam Snead won in Greensboro. Those are tour records. Tiger is a Secretariat-like sure thing to surpass that mark, not to mention Snead's supposed all-time record of 82 wins, now that No. 79 is all wrapped up. Tiger should already own that record, by the way, since Snead's total includes wins in partner events, a handful of 18- and 36-hole events and even one four-man tournament, all titles that would never count as official on today's tour. If you're counting that last one, you've got to toss in Tiger's seven unofficial PGA Grand Slam of Golf titles. Which would vault him past Snead's official total of 82 (but should really be 74). But that's another story.
What matters at Firestone is that Tiger just inserted himself back into the role as Overwhelming Favorite at next week's PGA Championship at Oak Hill. It's a brute of a course with thick rough and tree-lined fairways, not terribly unlike Tigerstone — er, Firestone. Just when we thought a new era of golf champions was upon us, thanks to Rory McIlroy last year and Adam Scott and Justin Rose this year, we're headed to the PGA and the two hottest players in the game are Tiger and Phil Mickelson.
Sound familiar? That's been golf since 1997.
It hasn't been that way of late. Eighteen different players have won the last 20 majors. Only McIlroy and Mickelson have won twice. Perhaps we're due for some encore performances. We'll see.
Phil is a resilient forty-something now and Tiger is major-less for five years and a sort of comeback story in progress. Don't expect to read about anyone other than those two until the PGA kicks off next Thursday. They're the ones who have driven this game for so long.
It will be hard to ignore the comparisons. Phil won the Scottish Open the week before he captured the British Open at Muirfield. Now Tiger has won a World Golf Championship the week before the PGA.
Tiger's recent inability to close on the weekends in major championships, or even shoot under par, will be glossed over in the wake of this demonstrative win.
Rightly so. Tiger started the final round with a seven-shot lead and was never in danger of not winning. He made Firestone look awfully easy when it was decidedly not. The average score for the field was 71 for the first three rounds. Woods was 15 under at that point. In other words, he played the course six shots better per round, on average, than the field.
Those are the kind of scary numbers he put up in First Tiger Woods Era.
That was then, this is now. Tiger is enjoying a banner season. He regained the No. 1 world ranking and he's got five victories. No one else is even close. But on Tiger's achievement scale, which differs slightly from, say, Kiradesch Aphibarnrat's, a year without a major championship is a year without success. Second place sucks, Tiger has often said. So, too, does being shut out.
Feel free to try to get into Tiger's head and figure out why he hasn't looked like Tiger the Invincible on weekends during recent majors. Maybe it's mental. It has to be mental, doesn't it? Or maybe it's something more simple, that he still doesn't completely trust the fourth incantation of his swing under pressure. Tiger is a skilled craftsman who believes in reps, not magic. It could be that. Or maybe he's at the age, an old 37, where the putting stroke is showing the first signs of fraying. Sure, he still putts as well as he ever did. Just not for 72 straight holes. That's how it went for Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and others before him. The stroke doesn't vanish, it just isn't there for four rounds in a row.
Whatever you come up with, you're just guessing, as any of us are. Tiger has kept us all at arm's length throughout his career. We learned more about him during his scandal period than at any time during the previous decade. But we still don't know him.
Still, something seems to be happening. It's hard to put a finger on it. Mellowing doesn't cover it. He remains the relentless competitor he has always been. Maturing isn't it. He was mature as a 12-year-old. Maybe the word is humanizing. You see Tiger walk off the 18th green a winner and make his way to the scoring area and on the way, as he's about to cross a practice putting green, his son, Charlie, catches up and they share a hug. Then Tiger carries Charlie on his arm to the scoring area. Father and son. You see that, you feel differently about Tiger. He seems more like a real person. It's hard not to like a good dad.
"It was awfully special to share that moment," Tiger said later. This was the first time Charlie has seen him win, he said, and Charlie understands what's going on. He and his daughter, Sam, Tiger said, have one stock question when they talk to Dad when he's away at tournaments: "Are you leading?" And if the answer is no, the next question, he said, is, "Well, are you going to starting leading?"
Sam was there when Tiger won the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, the one with Rocco Mediate in the playoff. "She loves to look at the YouTube videos of that," Tiger said. "Charlie has never had that before, never felt what it's like to be with the trophy."
So when Tiger and Charlie hugged on the putting green, "That was pretty cool," Tiger said.
One other thing about Tiger, and it can't be a good sign for his challengers, is he seems oddly relaxed. And not just because he won by seven in a cakewalk. He's got that confidence back, that look in his eye, that indicates he doesn't hope he plays well, he knows he'll play well. Oak Hill? It's a tough golf course, he said, but because he doesn't normally play the week before a major, he's going to take it easy on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, he said, is an important day to fine-tune his game to get ready.
A Tiger joke used to be a rare thing, indeed. After this win, there were several. When he was asked what he thought about Bridgestone extending its sponsorship for four more years, he deadpanned, "Mixed feelings. Because every time they extend, I win. So I told a guy out there, they've got to do one-year deals." He got the laughter he wanted.
He was asked about having eight wins at Firestone, Bay Hill and Torrey Pines and if he had to pick one, where would he play? The old Tiger might've blown off that question. This Tiger strummed his fingers on the microphone base for a few seconds while he actually thought about it. He liked the question. "Can I play six holes on each?" he asked. A room full of media types laughed heartily this time.
"Come on," Tiger cajoled, "that was a good answer." Then he went on to discuss what an odd trio of course they are, each so different. And he mentioned the three other courses he likes, Doral, Augusta and St. Andrews.
Tiger seemed more thoughtful and personable and engaging this week. As for his game, he said it's every bit as good as it was at the British Open, where his ball-striking was excellent but his putting faltered after the first round when the green speeds changed. He had a good putting day Thursday at Firestone, then had the hot-hot-hot putting day and the 61 on Friday, and then didn't make as many putts on the weekend because he didn't need to. That's a good reminder –Tiger knows how to win. He hasn't forgotten that. Nobody plays prevent defense in golf better than Tiger.
Whether he's back or not all the way back doesn't matter. What's important is that a player who wins a tournament with a top-heavy, star-studded field by more than a touchdown and didn't really have his best ball-striking on the weekend is a player who can win anytime, anywhere. Especially when he seems completely at ease with himself and his game.
If Tiger does continue this run and grab the PGA Championship for Major Title No. 15, he'll be only three majors behind Jack's iconic record of 18.
TigerMania will immediately resume with a higher-than-ever frenzy. And we'll have eight long months until the next major, the 2014 Masters, to consider the possibilities.
Finchem was right. Tiger Watch never stops. Not so far.