By late afternoona light rain was steadily falling--much like Tiger Woods's pursuers werethroughout the final round of the Bridgestone Invitational--and the outcome ofthe last official World Golf Championship of the season, at Firestone CountryClub in Akron, was hardly in doubt. Woods was navigating the closing holes witha lead (eight strokes) that was safer than a numbered bank account in Zurichwhen an impatient observer near the clubhouse blurted out, "C'mon, evenLittle League has a 10-run rule. It's eight shots! It's Tiger!" ¬∂ AnotherWoods victory at Firestone is as novel as another reality show. Sunday's washis third in a row and sixth in 10 starts there. His history at the club hasthe ring of a wedding vow: He's won in sickness and in health, in darkness andin daylight, in sunshine and in rain, in playoffs and in landslides. Last weekWoods was the only player in the 83-man field to handle Firestone'slightning-fast greens and angry rough well enough to break par. His eight-under272 came with only two bogeys over the final 48 holes and none on Sunday, whenhe lapped the field with a brilliant 65--all on a course that most of the prosagreed was the third most difficult of the year, behind only Augusta Nationaland Oakmont.
The victory wasdifferent in one respect, due in part to a change in this year's Tour schedule.For the first time, Woods triumphed at Firestone without already having won amajor championship. In 1999 he had taken the PGA the week before Firestone. In2000 he had won the U.S. and British Opens as well as the PGA. In '01 it wasthe Masters, in '05 the Masters and British, and last season the PGA again.
Tiger is0¬†for¬†'07 so far in the majors, but last week, for the first timesince early in the year when his winning streak reached seven straight, Woodslooked and played like the golfer who has 12 Grand Slam titles at age 31. Gonewas the guy who couldn't hold leads at the Masters and the U.S.¬†Open, theguy who looked distracted while hosting his own tournament at Congressional,the guy who couldn't pull his game together at Carnoustie, replaced by theplayer we've become accustomed to seeing in the final round, the man with thenever-on-Sunday attitude toward bogeys.
The year's firstthree majors have been won by first-time champions. The feeling here is that,based on Woods's showing at Firestone, that streak will end this week in Tulsa.Tiger has found his A¬†game, and that has obvious implications for the PGAChampionship. "I'd say, 'Good luck everybody else,' " says CBS coursereporter David Feherty, who followed Tiger on Sunday. He saw Woods hit 14greens in regulation and chip in on two of the greens he missed.
The final itselfturned deadly dull after Woods birdied four of the first six holes to open afour-shot lead and turn a potential grudge match with Rory Sabbatini into arout. "It was one of the alltime great rounds I've ever seen byanyone," Feherty says. "Especially the way that course played, withhard and fast fairways and horrific rough. Tiger had thatZen-effing-transcendental look from start to finish, you know? If anybody cameat him, he was going to stomp on them. Seriously, watching Tiger is likewatching a different species."
Everything youneeded to know about Woods's mind-set was evident on the 9th¬†hole, adownhill 494-yard par-4 whose firm, pitched fairway sent most tee shots intothe gnarly rough. Woods parred it in all four rounds but had an adventure onSunday. He made one of his few bad swings of the day when he dropped his headon the tee shot and pulled his ball almost onto the adjacent 10th fairway. Theplay would've been a chip-out and a wedge for anyone else, but Woods muscled anine-iron past a large maple and curved his ball back toward the green. Thewould-be miracle shot landed in the lap of a lady sitting in a folding chairleft of the green. After taking a drop, Woods made a second mistake, pitchingacross the green into the back fringe. Finally, after eight holes, a chink inTiger's armor? No. Caddie Steve Williams pulled the flagstick, and Woods deftlyhit a nine-iron chip that was never going anywhere but into the hole (Big Play,page¬†G18). Later Woods nonchalantly summarized how he had played the holeby saying, "Four shots."
The chip-in was akiller for a smoldering Sabbatini, who began the round with a one-stroke leadand had talked smack about wanting a rematch with Woods to get revenge for afinal-round dusting by Tiger at the Wachovia Championship in May. After makinga double bogey on the 9th to fall six shots behind, Sabbatini, who would tiefor second with Justin Rose, was confronted by a fan who asked him if he stillthought that Tiger was beatable, another reference to the Wachovia. Apparentlythe question came under the Jeopardy! category Bad Timing, because Sabbatiniprofanely pointed out the fan to security and had him removed from thecourse.
Sabbatini'sbrashness makes him a good quote, but there wasn't much to say about Sunday'sfinal score: Woods¬†65, Sabbo¬†74. If they had been playing a match,Woods would've won 7 and 6. Of course, it's doubtful that Woods views Sabbatini(or anyone else) as a real threat. Like Ben Hogan, Woods has only one realopponent--the course. "Once he's out there, he turns his head off,"Feherty says. "Nothing gets in, and nothing gets out until he'sdone."
Which is why Woodsseemed to be grinding so hard on his last putt, a 13-footer for par, on the72nd hole. He hadn't made a bogey all day, and his goal had been to keep hiscard clean. Never mind that he had an eight-shot lead and that the putt didn'treally matter. Woods can't understand people who don't get something so simple.Like Jack Nicklaus, Woods doesn't miss many putts on the 18th hole, and hedidn't miss this one.
"It's such apleasure to watch and be here at this time in golf," Feherty says. He meantthe Tiger Era, which continues at Southern Hills, where it will be an upset ifWoods doesn't win a 13th major. The one constant in Tiger's career is that whenhe plays well, he wins, and when he plays very well, as he did on the weekendat Firestone, he dominates. He's playing well.
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"Once he's out there, [Woods] turns his headoff," Feherty says. "NOTHING GETS IN, AND NOTHING GETS OUT UNTIL HE'SDONE."
RARE DOUBLE Woods led the field in driving distance (335.0 yards) and greens hit in regulation (72%).
SUNDAY SLIDER Sabbatini, who had a rude fan removed from the course, went from one up on Woods to eight behind.