Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When the extraordinary becomes the norm

There is genius and then there is Tiger Woods.

No one was surprised to watch him come from four shots down to win the Memorial Tournament in Ohio, with a flawless final round seven-under 65.

There is the initial smirk when the news filters through. How far back was he? Only four? Really? Regulation.

We hardly noticed he was there. It was his first appearance on the USPGA tour since his final round 73 at the Players’ when he played in the final group. It has been one of those years for Tiger. He’s been good without being his exceptional best.

Given he is returning from a knee reconstruction we probably expect too much. But it is his sheer brilliance, which appears with such monotonous regularity, which leads to such expectations.

It is his second win of the year. His first came in similar fashion. Sean O’Hair’s lead on Sunday at Bay Hill back in March was five shots. Woods’ chipped away all day. O’Hair stuttered and stumbled. And the world number one, with that innate sense of occasion, jailed a 15-footer in fading light on the 18th green for birdie and victory.

In Ohio on Sunday the victory was not so much spontaneous drama as a compelling inevitability. From the moment he drained a 40-foot putt on the third for birdie you just knew. When he stiffed his tee shot at the 210-yard par-three fourth to six-feet your senses heightened.

Then on the par-five 11th he announced his charge. A brilliant three-wood second just carried fractionally too far, and faded beyond the back right edge. With his ball engulfed by the second cut, the chip shot was made even harder by the significant slope of the green and glass-like nature of the putting surface. Needing to land it like a butterfly with sore feet, and let it pick up speed towards the cup, Woods opened the face took his right hand off his club through impact, the ball floated out of the “gnarly” lie, landed perfectly and tracked into the hole for an eagle.

How often does he do it? You think of the 16th in the final round of the 2005 Masters. Even in Ohio last Wednesday, playing in a skins game with Jack Nicklaus, Kenny Perry and Stuart Cink, in a chip-off on 18 to win, he holed out. And they don’t fall in the right edge or slam into the flagstick and wedge in the cup. They drop dead centre. He is a freak, no question.

But as much as we marvel at his short-game, particularly his putting which was the feature of his win at Bay Hill, it was not the key to his success in Ohio. The old adage you drive for show, putt for dough is never truer in Tiger’s case. But this week in Ohio he put on an exhibition of driving as perfect as he has ever produced.

He hit 49 of 56 fairways for the tournament, the best percentage of the field, and on Sunday he did not miss a fairway. In stark contrast to his effort at the Players where he could not hit a fairway, which forced him into scramble mode, his perfect driving in Ohio allowed his mind to bristle. Like Da Vinci with a blank canvas and a full palette, the possibilities for Woods to plot his way around the course in the fewest shots possible are endless when he operates from the fairway. It is a privilege to watch.

The reason for his vast driving improvement is due to a slight equipment change and a technical adjustment.

He has added half a degree to his driver. Previously with a 9.5 degree loft he was hanging back on his right-side in trying to get the high trajectory he wanted from the tee box. That and a trigger happy right hip produced a plethora of block-cuts and missed fairways. In Ohio, armed with a 10 degree driver, his right hip followed rather than led, and Tiger dazzled as he fired missile after missile down the middle.

He was quiet after the eagle on 11, paring the next three. But you knew what was coming. The par-five 15th presented another opportunity. An exquisite drive left him within range. He struck a laser-like three-iron to the back of the green and made a flawless, curling, lag two-putt down the hill. He tied for the lead at 11-under.

The rest of the field was melting under the pressure. Overnight leader Mark Wilson’s three-putt double-bogey at 13 ended his tournament. Co-leader Jonathan Byrd made a hash of the 14th also making double-bogey.

As they went backwards Tiger looked to surge, although he had a mishap at 16. He took on the flag at the 198-yard par-three and his six-iron didn’t carry the front bunker protecting the target which led to a bogey.

But 17 and 18 would be his coup de grace. A gorgeous nine-iron at 17 left him nine-feet for birdie. A customary point of the finger preceded his ball rattling the bottom of the cup and the roars reverberated back down the course.

At 18, from the middle of the fairway 183-yards out, he drew a seven-iron to a foot. Superlatives fail to do it justice.

He strode up, tapped it in, removed his cap, shook tournament host and career-long lure Jack Nicklaus’ hand, and waited quietly for the trophy presentation as the rest of the players behind him tried in vein to hole from the fairway just to force a play-off.

It is the 19th time in Woods’ remarkable career he has come from behind to win. To win 19 times from in-front would be an extraordinary achievement in itself. It is his fourth Memorial title and his 67th career victory on the US Tour. When Nicklaus won his 67th title, the 1978 British Open, he was 38 years old. Tiger is just 33.

On Sunday Woods produced his A-game. If he channels that again at Bethpage Black in a fortnight’s time, a venue that has already yielded him a US Open title in 2002, a 15th major must surely be a fait accompli.

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