CHASKA, Minn., Aug. 18 - The formula has worked so well, Tiger Woods had every reason to believe it would work again. It worked at the Masters earlier this year, worked like a charm. Woods put it in neutral, kept the engine running but never stepped on the gas. One by one, a star-studded leaderboard choked and stalled around him.
IT WORKED AGAIN at the U.S. Open. Woods assumed the lead position on Sunday, put it on autopilot and let Sergio Garcia and the rest Roman candle around him. But a funny thing happened on the way to another major success at the PGA Championship, somebody else showed up.
Although trailing to start the day, Woods threw three birdies on the board on the front nine and crawled within a stroke of the lead. Again, he was playing safe, smart. Again contenders were stumbling around him. Again, the formula was working.
“Starting out the day, before the round even started, if I could have just chipped away and got it to two or three going to the back nine, I would have a very good chance of winning this tournament,” Woods said. “To be only one back was an added bonus. I knew if I just played the back nine in 2- or 3-under par, I probably would win the tournament.”
Earlier in the week, players like former U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen all but confirmed as much: “You know, really the only chance the other players have got is when he’s not really in contention.”
But someone forgot to put the second fiddle in Rich Beem’s bag. Beem poured his Pepto-Bismol stash all over Woods’ formula. Playing alongside a badly leaking Justin Leonard, the unheralded Beem kept hitting unconscious laser beams. After Woods made a conservative par on the par-5 No. 11, Beem upped the ante with an eagle. A one-stroke lead swelled to three strokes with seven holes to play.
Bob May had been re-incarnated. Woods would not be able to absorb this championship. If he was going to come from behind to win a major for the first time, if he was to become the first to win three majors in a season twice, if he was to become the first to win all three American majors in a season, he was going to have to make something happen. Beem was not going to let it happen.
The response was not what one expected from the new Nicklaus. The response was not in keeping with Earl Woods’ vision of the “new Messiah.” The response was what we have seen from those who have submitted to Woods in seven of the previous 12 majors, from other human beings on the planet. The response made a distinctive rattling noise, the sound of vulnerability.
Tiger Woods pumps his arm after making a birdie during the final round. "It's frustrating any time you finish second," Woods said. "But then again, I'm kind of pumped at the way I finished."
The scenario served to remind why golf is such an intoxicating game. When all the hype, all the statistics, all the logic suggests a particular outcome, you can bet the game will give us another. What took place at Hazeltine National Golf Club made us realize that, for all of his achievements, Woods is still fallible. And given that perspective, it made us appreciate how remarkable he has been.
As if to emphasize the point, Woods gave us one more major kick. With four holes to play, he woke up, remembered who he was and what he is capable of. He stubbornly made Beem sweat it out and earn every penny of his $990,000 winner’s take. He birdied the final four holes and he walked away with a smile.
“It’s frustrating any time you finish second,” said Woods, who wound up with a final round of 67. “It’s disappointing. But as I said, it’s kind of a double-edged sword right now because I’m frustrated. I made the mistakes on 13 and 14, but then again, I’m kind of pumped at the way I finished.
“I sucked it up and got the job done coming in, and that’s something I’ve very proud of. I could have easily just, you know, bagged it in and made pars coming in. Who really cares? But that’s not the way I play.”
According to the formula, Tiger Woods plays for first. But even when he finishes second, it’s something to see.
Dan O’Neill is a contributor for NBCSports.com and is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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