The fan, perched ona landing halfway up the outdoor staircase that led to the clubhouse atFirestone Country Club, shouted out as Tiger Woods, the seven-time winner ofthe World Golf Championships--Bridgestone Invitational, was being escorted tothe awards ceremony on Sunday. "Hey, Tiger! Nice weekend!" yelled theman, who held a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other. Woods looked overand, without breaking stride, wordlessly responded with a small wave.
Some things change.Woods usually tunes out such salutations, having learned to live with his ownkind of tunnel vision, a necessary skill when you're arguably the most famousathlete in the world. But Tiger is in a good place this summer. Being thefather of two will do that, and so will winning, which he has done five timesso far in 2009.
And some thingsdon't change. Because of his disappointing play in the first three majors thisyear—he tied for sixth in the Masters and the U.S. Open, and missed the cut atthe British Open—the debate rages over whether Woods is fully recovered fromsurgery on his left knee, and whether his coach, Hank Haney, has helped or hurtWoods's game, particularly his in-and-out play off the tee.
Those who say Woodsis driving the ball poorly must've been mystified last weekend when, on some ofthe narrowest fairways on the PGA Tour, he shot a pair of five-under 65s,hitting 64% and 57% of the fairways, respectively. Says Hunter Mahan, who tiedfor fourth, "He would do well here playing lefthanded."
Those who askwhether Woods is "back" might be interested to learn that, in fact, heis closing in on one of his best seasons. The Bridgestone victory was hissecond in a row and fourth in his last six starts. If he should win his 15thmajor at this week's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club inChaska, Minn., plus a couple of FedEx Cup playoff events to end the season, hecould finish this comeback year with eight, maybe nine wins. In his best year,2000, Woods won nine times.
The Bridgestonewin, by four strokes over Robert Allenby and Padraig Harrington, with a12-under 268, bodes well for Woods this week. First, Firestone is amajor-worthy course that is similar to Hazeltine—same grasses and trees, andthe greens are relatively the same size and speed. Second, Woods has won thePGA four times, but never in a year in which he hadn't also won at Firestone.And finally, Tiger clearly has his groove back. Everyone could see that duringthe third round, when he jumped from 13th place to the final pairing on Sundaywith Harrington. For perhaps the first time this season Woods was in completecontrol of his game. He picked his lines, hit his spots and needed only 23putts.
Tiger was still onhis game on Sunday, reeling off an eagle and three birdies on the front side toerase Harrington's three-shot lead and go in front by two. Then a couple oferrant drives led to a pair of bogeys, and the game was on. The tournament wasdecided at the 16th hole, a downhill par-5 of 667 yards with a small greenguarded by a pond. Woods drove into the left rough and chipped out. Harringtondrove into the right rough but pulled his second across the fairway and intothe left rough on an upslope. From 178 yards out, Woods then landed a sweeteight-iron shot four feet past the cup and watched it spin back to withininches for a kick-in birdie. "That was a phenomenal shot," Harringtonsaid. "I struggled to hit [and hold] that green with a lob wedge, so it waspretty impressive."
In fact, Harringtonmissed the green long and right with his third shot on Sunday, his ball comingto rest in a patch of thick rough. Facing a downhill pitch with little green towork with and water just beyond, but knowing that Woods had a guaranteedbirdie, Harrington tried a risky flop shot, caught his ball heavy and knockedit into the drink. He wound up with an embarrassing triple-bogey 8.
Later, Woods blameda rules official for upsetting Harrington on the 16th tee. The official, JohnParamor, chief referee for the European tour, told the players that they were"on the clock" because they had lagged behind the pace of play. Woodssaid he thought it caused Harrington to rush his crucial third and fourthshots. (Harrington blamed himself for not executing them.) Woods, when asked ifhe had won because he hit a great eight-iron at 16 or because Harrington wasrattled after being put on the clock, simply said, "Both."
The victory wasTiger's 70th on the PGA Tour, leaving him three behind Jack Nicklaus for secondplace on the alltime list. (Sam Snead holds the Tour record with 82 wins.) Ifyou mix in Woods's 11 international victories, his 13 unofficial titles (suchas his seven wins at the PGA Grand Slam of Golf) and his six U.S. GolfAssociation championships (three U.S. Amateurs and U.S. Juniors), theBridgestone victory was Woods's 100th.
After Sunday'sfireworks, Harrington shook hands with Woods on the 18th green and said,"We'll do battle many times again." And soon. Harrington and Woods areto play in the same threesome (along with Rich Beem) for the first two roundsof the PGA Championship. After that, all we can hope for is another niceweekend.
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FRED VUICH (WOODS)
PIGGY BANK Woods has won 16 of the first 32 World Golf Championships, good for almost $19 million.
PADDY WHACKED Rattled by a slow-play warning, Harrington made a disastrous snowman on the 16th hole.