MONTREAL — The Nick O’Hern streak is over. The Aussie lefthander, about as lean as the long wand he uses, has famously defeated Tiger Woods twice in match play, and on Thursday he had another crack at him, this time in the most peculiar and delicious form of golf, which we see on the big stage only once a year: alternate shot. Foursomes, for your Brits and Anglophiles.
Woods hit the tee shots on the odd holes, which gave him the first crack on all four par-3s at Royal Montreal. His partner, Charles Howell III, had the even holes, which meant he led off on the two par-5s. Gary Player, the international captain, had O’Hern start the odds, and O’Hern’s partner, K.J. Choi of Korea and better golf tournaments everywhere, took the evens.
O’Hern, who lives in Perth but owns a home in Isleworth, Fla., the Orlando resort where Tiger has lived most of his adult life, is famous in the United States mostly for what he did twice to Woods in the WGC Match Play. The golfing accomplishment he’s most proud of is winning the Australian PGA Championship, but that win doesn’t travel so well. Thursday afternoon, he had a chance to grow the legend.
Among the spectators, you heard it a lot on Thursday: “That’s Nick O’Hern, the Tiger-killer.” He’s a modest and unassuming man who developed his game in a way Tiger would appreciate but would know nothing about. Fourteen years ago, in his first year of married life, O’Hern and his bride, Alana, traveled the U.S. in a camper playing mini-tour events. O’Hern won his last tournament of the year, an event on the Dakotas Tour that earned the young couple $13,000, which got them to the break-even point for the year.
“We treat the Tiger thing as a bit of a laugh,” Alana said yesterday as she followed her husband around the links on a dank day that brought to mind a Ryder Cup played in England. All the French being spoken among the spectators, plus the Canadian English that still has traces of Britain in it, made the tournament feel like an international event in a way that wouldn’t be possible in, say, Boston — just six hours away from swinging Montreal for a heavy-footed motorist.
O’Hern has told Gary Player, his boss for the week, that he’d welcome the chance to play Woods in singles play on Sunday. Not everybody would. Captain G. has said that he already knows who will take on the World’s Most Dominating Athlete, but he wasn’t saying whom it would be. Player loves the whole cat-and-mouse aspect of international team competition. In part, he’s making up for lost time. In his long heyday, say 1958 to 1982, there were no such events for a South African golf star. Jack Nicklaus, his American counterpart, looks like he could take or leave the whole thing, which is probably the perfect attitude.
Anyway, Woods was too much for O’Hern on Thursday. Or, more accurately, Woods and Howell were too much for O’Hern and Choi. They made the turn 1 up and won, 3 and 1. On 17, a ticklish par 3, Woods just about holed his tee shot from 140 yards. O’Hern followed by hitting his shot to six feet. Six feet, in normal conditions, is pretty close. But not when you’re playing Tiger Woods, the late 2007 model, who is probably more dominating than any golfer has ever been.
When he came in from his day of charity work — the pros don’t get a penny from this competition — Woods was asked if the tide may have finally turned in his match-play history with the Thin Man, Mr. Nick O’Hern.
Woods smiled. He knows the truth, of course. Nick O’Hern beat him one day. Ed Fiori did, too. So did Hal Sutton. Guys do it, now and then. The second time, Woods beat himself. “Any time you play match play, anything can happen,” Woods said. Seventy-two holes of stroke-play, that’s a whole different thing. That’s the format in which Woods beats Nick O’Hern and everybody else, in any given week, roughly 30 percent of the time. That’s the format that really matters to Woods.
“He got me twice, but that’s the nature of it,” Woods said on Thursday.
On Thursday at Royal Montreal, Woods got him.