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Friday, August 14, 2009

Woods on top of his game


CHASKA, Minn. – Tiger Woods had just cruised his way around the longest layout in major championship history, posting a 5-under 67 to open the PGA Championship here at Hazeltine. This was his third consecutive week playing golf in the Midwest (the first two resulting in victory) and he joked at why the humid air and raising winds didn’t cause him to fatigue.
“I had that nice little rest there after the British Open,” Woods said. “That’s what got me, I have plenty of energy.”
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So there’s the silver lining after all in missing the cut at a major for just the second time in his career? It isn’t that Tiger’s rested, just restless.
If the PGA Championship is, indeed, “Glory’s Last Shot,” then Woods took his from the get-go. Famous for his slow starts in majors, he threw out an early low number and dared anyone to match him (no one has yet). He’s trying to win this one from the front, wire-to-wire.
Woods’ majors
Tiger Woods has won 14 majors, second behind Jack Nicklaus’ 18.
Year
Major
Total
2008
U.S. Open
-1*
2007
PGA Champ.
-8
2006
PGA Champ.
-18
2006
British Open
-18
2005
British Open
-14
2005
Masters
-12*
2002
Masters
-12
2002
U.S. Open
-3
2001
Masters
-16
2000
PGA Champ.
-18*
2000
British Open
-19
2000
U.S. Open
-12
1999
PGA Champ.
-11
1997
Masters
-18*Won in playoff
It was a systematic Woods, a smart, effortless loop. He didn’t fall into the trap of trying to overpower the 7,674-yard course. “Major championships … beat you into making mistakes,” he said.
So his best shots were some he didn’t attempt. He didn’t allow ego to get the better of him, he didn’t even try to duplicate players that were rocket launching Titleists into the Minnesota air.
When Woods was on the green of the 606-yard 11th hole, 26-year-old Alvaro Quiros, who was playing behind him, smoked his second shot up a hill, into the wind and onto the edge of the green. It traveled over 300 yards. Tiger just bowed in appreciation and played his game.
“I mean, that’s just stupid long,” Woods said. “Just absolutely phenomenal. I used to be able to move the ball [like that]. Not anymore. I just plod my way around, shoot 67.”
The 33-year-old flashed one of his big smiles and that’s why the rest of the field here ought to be in full panic. He’s ready to win this one with brains, not just brawn. Tiger has proven unbeatable when he leads a major after 54 holes, now he’s going to try to defend the lead two days early.
“The first round, you can play yourself out of a golf tournament,” he said. “[You] certainly cannot win the golf tournament on the first day.”
That’s true – in PGA Championships, for example, he lost with a first-round lead in 1998, although he won in 2000. Still, no one is sleeping well knowing Woods is on a tear like this.
He ran away with victory at Michigan’s Buick Open two weeks ago and Ohio’s Bridgestone Invitational last Sunday. Now he’s tearing through Minnesota; his Big Ten blitzkrieg continues.
The scariest thing is this round could’ve been so much better. He was brilliant out of the tee box and, for the most part, from the fairway. He rarely put himself in a bad position. While Woods made some great putts, he also just missed three or four others.
“I hit a lot of good putts that were skirting the edge and lipping out,” he said. “This round could have been really low.”
The misses weighed on him enough, the thought of missing out on an opening round 63 or so, that he barely could recall some of his better shots. Like, say, the endless putt he drained for a birdie on three.
“No. 3, what did I do 3?” he asked. “I can’t remember them all. Oh, yeah, I made about a 30-footer there.”
Oh yeah, that.
So essentially Woods showed up white hot and screwed around enough to blister this course. Then he got inside before the conditions worsened and rested up for Friday afternoon.
Woods had always said a year can’t qualify as “great” without winning a major, which is why the year’s final opportunity has taken on an even greater Tiger focus than usual. He qualified his definition of great this year though.
Despite two sixth places and a missed cut in the first three big ones, he’s won a tour-best five tournaments. And, after all, a year ago he was just trying to walk without a brace on his surgically repaired knee – “I wasn’t very good at it.”
“I’ve said [great] in the past but I didn’t have ACL reconstruction, either. It usually takes a while for an athlete to come back, and most guys, or some of the guys who have had it in our sport have not gone on to have the years I’ve had this year.”
In most sports an ACL takes a full year to recover and while athletes – including Woods – think they can cheat the calendar, knees are knees.
He returned to competitive golf eight months after he limped his way to the 2008 U.S. Open title, his 14th major championship. There have been times he’s been great. But now he’s playing his best golf of the year. It’s a stretch that began, perhaps not coincidentally, 13 months after the surgery.
“As far as the Masters, the Masters I did not putt well,” he said, trying to rationalize his 2009 major shortcomings. “I putted well in streaks and I didn’t finish off the rounds the way I should have. At the U.S. Open, I putted very, very poorly. Hit the ball well enough to win, but certainly did not putt well enough to win
“At the British Open, I had six bad holes in a row,” he said. “If you take that way, the body of work was there.”
Past failures are still fueling future glory for Woods. Tiger is in the lead early, with the stakes as high as ever. The field can only pretend it isn’t worried sick.

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