A funny thing happened on the way to Tiger Woods' coronation round on Sunday at the PGA Championship at sweltering Southern Hills Country Club: He had to scramble to secure the win. Woods was pushed for once in the oppressive heat, but still came up with the victory, shooting eight under par in tough conditions that saw only five players finishing in red numbers.
Woods final round pleasure stroll in the 100 plus degree temperatures in Tulsa, Oklahoma seemed but a formality after he shot 63 on Friday, tying the lowest round ever in a major. On Saturday, he stretched his lead to three strokes, and all we saw Sunday morning from the sportscasters was how Tiger had NEVER lost a major when he led after 54 holes. It seemed like a complete lock. Even Ernie Els, down six strokes at the start of play, seemed to think so, stating that if he were "a fan on the couch...I'd bet the house" that Tiger would win.
His partners in the final pairings certainly couldn't withstand the pressure. Scott Verplank entered Saturday's round two shots back. He left out of contention, shooting a 74. On the last day, Stephen Ames drew the short straw, and responded as so many opponents seem to do when staring down the Beast...wilting to a 12th place finish after shooting a pedestrian 76.
But the drama came from a resurgent Els, playing his best golf since his ACL surgery, and long time journeyman Woody Austin, a man known more for his wild shirts and wilder temper than for his ability to compete in a major. Both men outplayed Tiger on Sunday, Els carding a 66 with Austin coming in at 67 in comparison to Woods' final 69.
At one point things looked very much in doubt for Tiger. He had been shaky off the tee all day, and following bogeys on the ninth and fourteenth holes, he found that his lead that had once been five strokes had shrunk to one. Stepping on the tee at the dangerous 507 yard par four fifteenth, Woods knew that he had to stop the bleeding immediately. He did so by putting his past driving difficulties out of his mind and crushing a driver down the middle of the fairway. He then stuck his approach shot to within fifteen feet, and sank his much needed birdie.
From there, it was just a matter of Woods needing to par out on the remaining three holes, as Els and Austin, playing in groups in front of Tiger, were unable to secure a birdie on the extremely tough eighteenth hole. Tiger simply needed to hit fairways and then the middle of the greens, which he did with chilling precision, finally dropping a three foot par put on the 18th to bring him to within five majors of tying Jack Nicklaus for the all time record.
It was quite the entertaining tournament, with many stories not involving Tiger. In fact, Woods was six strokes off the lead after the first round. That's not shocking news, as Tiger often has his worst rounds on Thursday, but the surprising thing was the two names at the top of the leaderboard; Graeme Storm (65) and John Daly (67). Storm, an almost completely unknown Englishman, proceeded to do what was expected, collapsing to a tie for 62nd with rounds of 76-74-78.
But it was Daly that supplied the excitement, as he often does as golf's version of a train wreck that you just can't keep your eyes off from. While the top players often hit irons off the tees of the tricky doglegs that dominate this course, Daly stuck with his driver and his "grip-it and rip-it" mentality. Often it worked, but just as often he'd be behind trees or in someone else's fairway...but would still manage to hit the greens in regulation often enough to stay near the top of the leaderboard. He was at even par after two rounds, and ended up tied for 32nd at six over. Not bad for someone that had not even played a practice round, choosing instead to play slots at an Ozark casino.
It was not a good tournament for the winners of the previous majors, with only British Open champion Padraig Harrington making the cut (and finishing tied for 42nd). Masters winner Zach Johnson never got on track, shooting ten over for the two days, which was one better than U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera. But it's the way that Cabrera reached his 81 on Thursday that will be remembered, as the Argentinean scored a mind boggling ten on the par three sixth hole, putting two balls into unplayable lies in the bushes past the green, and then losing a third in the water...and then following it all up with a three putt.
The only one who had a more miserable time was Sergio Garcia. At the turn of the second round, the Spaniard was in contention at one under for the tournament. He then took three swings to get out of a bunker for a double bogey, then followed that by bogeying four consecutive holes to barely make the cut at five over. Playing early on Saturday with Good Ol' Boy Boo Weekley, never to be confused with a Rhodes Scholar, Garcia slumped his way to a four over 74. Except that Weekley recording his score as 73, and Sergio didn't check to catch the error, therefore being disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
Tiger's week ended on a completely different note. Holding the Wanamaker Trophy for the fourth time, he trails only Nicklaus and Walter Hagen in PGA titles, just needing one more to tie. It's also his first major victory as a father, as infant daughter Sam Alexis was in attendance.
Decked out in "victory" red...just like her daddy.