Sunday, August 12, 2007

It Was Over Long Before It Was Over

Published: August 13, 2007

Tulsa, Okla.

Despite the awful truth in Yogi Berra’s philosophy that any sporting event is never over until it’s over, in the hours before Tiger Woods teed off with a three-stroke lead in the final round of the 89th P.G.A. Championship, even Yogi might have thought it was over.

Woods’s wife, Elin, also must have thought it was over, because she flew in with their baby daughter, Sam, for the occasion. And it was over. Not easily, though.

With a major title at stake, Tiger Woods simply doesn’t lose leads. When leading or sharing the lead after 54 holes in 12 previous majors, he had never lost. And at Southern Hills yesterday, he was chased by Woody Austin, who shot 67, and Ernie Els, who had 66. But after a three-putt bogey on the 14th hole narrowed his lead over Austin to one stroke, Woods birdied the 413-yard 15th with a 15-foot putt for the final two-stroke margin.

Alluding to the bogey later, Woods said, “I told myself, You got yourself in this mess, now earn your way out of it.” Notice the word earn. He wasn’t hoping that Austin or Els would fall back. He knew he had to make a birdie.

Of all the elements in Woods’s wizardry, the most impressive has been his gift for what he called the “art of winning”: to stay steady in the pressure cooker of the back nine, or to thwart a challenge. Nobody does it better. And he knows it.

“I know what to do when I’m in that situation, I know what it takes,” he predicted Saturday evening after his 69 in the third round. “There’s a certain feel that you get out there that you can understand what the guys could do and are capable of doing on the back nine, the round, how the wind’s blowing. You just get a certain feel for what the number’s going to be that day. And a lot of times I’ve called the number and I’ve been pretty good on it.”

With the Wanamaker Trophy alongside him at his news conference yesterday evening, he acknowledged that number to have been “under par on each nine.” He was one under on the front, even par on the back for a 69 that was enough for his 13th major title, five short of Jack Nicklaus’s record. With 13 triumphs in 44 majors, he’s nine ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace.

But like all golfers, Woods had to lose to learn that art of winning. Of his 264 events as a pro, he has won 79 (52 on the PGA Tour), but there were 185 that he didn’t win. And for all his amateur and junior success, including a six-year streak of three United States Amateurs and three United States Juniors, there were many more tournaments that he did not win.

“I think it’s a process of learning,” he said. “A lot of junior and amateur events I played in, I didn’t win that many. But you live and learn. You apply that knowledge. And over the years when I’ve put myself in position to win, I think I’ve done a better job of that as I’ve matured.”

Of Woods’s 13 majors, only two went to a playoff. At the 2000 P.G.A. Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., he had to birdie the last two holes for a 67 to create a three-hole playoff with Bob May, who shot 66; Woods’s birdie on the first extra hole proved to be the difference. At his 2005 Masters sudden-death playoff with Chris DiMarco, he won with a birdie on the first extra hole, the 18th at Augusta National.

Equally remarkable, Woods has lost only 6 of 52 events worldwide after holding or sharing the 54-hole lead: three on the PGA Tour (the Quad Cities in 1996 to Ed Fiori and the Tour Championship in 2000 to Phil Mickelson and in 2004 to Retief Goosen) and three elsewhere (the Deutsche Bank-SAP in 2000 to Lee Westwood, the Dubai Desert Classic in 2004 to Thomas Bjorn and the Dunlop Phoenix last year to Padraig Harrington in a playoff).

On his arrival here, Woods knew the naysayers were chirping that Southern Hills didn’t set up well for his game. He didn’t play well here in the 2001 Open, tying for 12th, or as a rookie pro in the 1996 Tour Championship, tying for 21st. But he silenced them yesterday.

After a tie for second at the Masters, another tie for second at the United States Open at Oakmont and a depressing tie for 12th at the British Open at Carnoustie, he was facing a rare empty year in the majors. But now all those naysayers will be wondering if he can complete a pro Grand Slam, maybe next year.

Besides the Masters at Augusta National, where he’s won four times, next year’s United States Open will be at Torrey Pines outside San Diego, where he has won five Buick Invitationals; the British Open will be at Royal Birkdale, where he finished third in 1998; and the P.G.A. will be at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, where as a 20-year-old amateur in 1996 he tied for 82nd in the United States Open.

With the golf planets seemingly aligned for Tiger Woods, all he has to do in any of next year’s majors is get the 54-hole lead. After that, he’ll know what to do.

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