He has less hairbut more muscle. He lost his father but found a bride. He's trading in his townhouse on the Isleworth driving range for a mansion on the Atlantic. On the golfcourse he drives it longer though not quite as straight, his putting isstreakier, his iron game sharper, his course management more refined. ¬∂ TheTiger Woods who won the PGA Championship last week at Medinah Country Club is adifferent player and person from the kid who took the PGA at Medinah in 1999,but seven years later there are intriguing parallels. The '99 PGA remains oneof the most momentous of Woods's 51 career Tour victories. It was his secondmajor championship triumph, 2 1/2 long years after his breakthrough at the '97Masters. Razing Augusta National had turned Woods into a cross-cultural icon,but the '99 PGA confirmed him to be a player for the ages, and it was thejumping-off point for the greatest golf ever played. From Medinah, Woods roaredinto a 2000 season in which he won nine tournaments, including threeconsecutive majors, taking the U.S. and British Opens by a combined 23strokes.
The march toMedinah in '99 had begun with a famous phone call in May of that year from therange at the Byron Nelson Classic. Two years into a major swing reconstruction,Woods rang his then instructor, Butch Harmon, and said simply, "I gotit."
In the wake ofhis latest victory at Medinah, Woods appears to have ramped up for a stretchthat may be every bit as dominant as the golf he played in 2000. The lateststreak also began with a practice session, this one in Chicago, following anopening 72 at last month's Western Open. The Western was Woods's first eventsince he missed the cut at the U.S. Open, and he was straining to find his formin a season that had been torn asunder by the death of his father. He set upshop on the range at Cog Hill with his instructor, Hank Haney, with whom he hadembarked on yet another swing overhaul two years ago, and in a 2 1/2-hoursession they focused on the flaw that had been tormenting Woods: his tendencyto cock his head to the left on the backswing and then rock it back to theright on the downswing, upsetting his balance and timing. The enduring imagefrom that grueling session was of Haney's left hand pressed against the rightside of Woods's face, keeping his head stable while Tiger focused on rotatingsmoothly around his spine.
That longafternoon "turned it all around," Woods says, speaking of both hisswing and his season. He followed at the Western with rounds of 67-66-68 tosurge into second and propel himself to the British Open with much-neededmomentum.
Woods has alwaysbeen so tough to beat because on the PGA Tour he is the most physically giftedathlete and the mentally toughest, the hardest worker and the guy who wants itmost. Now that he has entered his 30s he has become an even smarter, moredisciplined player. Woods said this summer that Roger Federer is one of hisfavorite athletes and that he admires his mastery of different playingsurfaces. That same adaptability has been apparent during Woods's currentthree-tournament winning streak. At the British Open he played anuncharacteristic brand of pinpoint small-ball, plotting his way around Hoylakewith frightening efficiency. His next time out Woods destroyed the field at theBuick Open, racking up a career-best 28 birdies as he overpowered Warwick HillsCountry Club.
Last week atMedinah he combined the best of both worlds, as he alternately attacked andmaneuvered around the longest golf course in major championship history, whichhad been softened by a meek setup and Friday night rain. On Medinah's twistypar-4s he prudently shaped five-woods and three-irons off the tee, but he letthe dog out on most of the four par-5s, which he played in nine under. Themissing piece for Woods was his putting. At Hoylake he prevailed even though hehad three three-putts on the back nine on Saturday, typical of an uneven yearon the greens.
"With allthis focus on his swing, it's the one thing that's gone neglected," Haneysaid last week of Woods's putting. "But he's worked hard on it, and it'sstarting to show."
Woods's putterrepeatedly saved him at the PGA, particularly over the first two rounds, whenhe was in scramble mode while hitting only 15 of 28 fairways. On Saturday hejump-started his round with a 25-footer to save par on the 1st hole, elicitinga violent fist-pump. A ball-striking clinic ensued, and Woods's 65 tied thecourse record and sent shock waves through the grounds at Medinah. Momentsafter finishing his third round, U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy looked backtoward the 18th green, where Luke Donald faced a long birdie putt. Said Ogilvy,"We need Luke to make this putt so Tiger doesn't have the lead. Becausewhen he has the lead, he wins." Donald missed, meaning he and Woods wouldbe tied for the lead heading into the final round. The desperation Ogilvy feltis born from the numbers. Going into the PGA, Woods was 36 for 39 in closingout when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, including 11 for 11 inthe majors.
Woods wasted notime in burnishing his legend on Sunday. He brushed in a 12-footer for birdieon the 1st hole to take sole possession of the lead and just kept going. Whenhe made a 40-foot bomb on number 6 his cushion was three strokes. Another40-footer on 8 pushed his lead to four.
"I had one ofthose magical days on the greens," Woods said on Sunday evening. "Ijust felt like if I got the ball anywhere on the green, I could make it. It'snot too often you get days like that, and I happened to have it on the finalround of a major."
When Woodsbirdied the 11th hole out of the rough, his lead was five strokes, and the restof the back nine became an extended trophy ceremony, recalling the old dayswhen he routinely snuffed the life out of tournaments and the other players. Bythe time Woods tidied up his closing 68, he had made only three bogeys for theweek. His final tally of 18 under tied the PGA Championship scoring record, ofwhich he already owned a piece, from 2000, when he also set scoring records atthe U.S and British Opens.
Is he playing atthe same level as six years ago?
"Yes.Yes," Woods said during the champion's press conference. "With [sixyears of] added experience, and understanding how to get myself around a golfcourse and how to control my emotions and all the different shots I've learnedsince then, yeah, I feel like things are pretty darned good right now."
Which is, ofcourse, bad news for everybody else. Just ask Sergio García. He burst onto thescene at the '99 PGA, a fearless 19-year-old who lit up Medinah with a Sundayrally that fell one stroke short. That was supposed to position Sergio as Butchto Tiger's Sundance, but he has not matched Woods's unrelenting improvement.García hung around the leader board all week but finished in a distant tie forthird, another letdown in a career full of them. If the enduring image ofSergio circa 1999 is his joyous scissors kick, seven years later he was amuttering, head-shaking picture of frustration.
García was notthe only player to leave Medinah feeling dispirited. As Woods was slowed by his2004 swing changes and then the failing health of his father, nobody tookgreater advantage of the lulls than Phil Mickelson. But now, suddenly, he hasbeen thrust back into the familiar role of not being good enough. Mickelson gotto see firsthand how he stacks up, as over the first 36 holes he was pairedwith Tiger. On Thursday the two shared a little forced chitchat and matching69s. That's an excellent score at any major, but the headline in the ChicagoSun-Times captured the collective disappointment that there were not morefireworks: underwhelming. Mickelson was thoroughly outclassed during the secondround, as Tiger shot a bogeyless 68 while Phil sprayed his ball all overIllinois en route to a 71. A closing 74 would leave Mickelson in 16th place, 12strokes back of Woods. On Sunday, Phil was asked to put into perspective hisarchrival's 12th major championship. "It's pretty good," he said,curtly ending the discussion.
Those dozenvictories have pushed Woods two thirds of the way up Mount Nicklaus. A fewyears ago Jack's record of 18 career major championships looked insurmountable;now, with Woods having bagged four in the last two years, the shattering ofgolf's greatest record seems inevitable, and sooner rather than later.
"Well, it'sstill a long way away," says Woods, who made his Tour debut 10 years agothis week. "It took Jack over 20 years to get to his. As I've said, it'sgoing to take a career, and I've just got to keep plugging along and keeptrying to win these things. But these are the most fun events to play in, themajor championships. I thoroughly enjoy coming down the stretch on the backnine with a chance to win. That's why I practice as hard as I do. It's what Ilive for. That to me is the ultimate rush in our sport, [to be] on that backnine on Sunday with a chance to win a major."
In '99, when thefinal putt had dropped, Woods slumped over his flatstick, weary from the 2 1/2years it had taken to validate his epic Masters win. This time he seemeddetermined to enjoy the moment. After the stultifying formal awards ceremony hepicked up the oversized Wanamaker Trophy and marched across the 18th green toshake his bauble at a raucous grandstand. A little while later Woods wasspirited into a hot, crowded room within Medinah's majestic clubhouse for thetraditional victor's champagne toast with the PGA of America brass. Thewhite-haired official presiding over the ceremony first called upon Woods'swife, Elin. She likes to avoid the spotlight, and as Elin arrived on stage hercheeks were the same color as her crimson stanford T-shirt. Mrs. Woods waspresented with a pendant adorned with the PGA logo. Then Tiger got a present ofhis own--an honorary membership to Medinah, a club that joins the augustcompany of Augusta National and St. Andrews as the only courses on which Woodshas won multiple major championships. Stepping to the microphone, Woodsshouted, "I love this place!" He added that he was already lookingforward to the 2012 Ryder Cup matches at Medinah. "Hopefully I'll make theteam," he said, breaking up the room. Finally it was time to toast hisillustrious past and seemingly endless future. Woods downed his tall glass ofchampagne in one greedy gulp.
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García hung around the leader board all week, but hewas a distant third, ANOTHER LETDOWN in a career full of them.
Asked to put into perspective his archrival's 12thmajor, Mickelson said, "IT'S PRETTY GOOD," curtly ending thediscussion.
IN THE ZONE Woods wielded a hot putter as he pulled away during the last round. "I had one of those magical days on the greens," he said.
NOT THIS TIME As Woods awed the crowds, García struggled to find the magic he'd shown in challenging Tiger at Medinah in '99.
FRED VUICH (GARCIA)
[See caption above.]
NO CONTEST Woods (left) was three shots up on Mickelson after 36 holes, but the gap in the quality of their play was much wider.