O'Neill: Tiger’s PGA Championship Loss is Golf’s Gain

Woods with the lead on Sunday is like Kirstie Alley with cheesecake on her plate

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    The bottom line is Woods knows he need not go out and win a tournament he leads, he need only be careful not to lose it.

    CHASKA, Minn. - Perhaps there was a lesson to be learned in what took place at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Sunday, a lesson for Tiger Woods, a lesson for all of us.

    Woods began the final round of the PGA Championship with a two-stroke lead. Woods with the lead on Sunday is like Kirstie Alley with cheesecake on her plate, you can bet it’s going to be put away. Woods, who had never been caught from behind during the final round of a major, started Sunday with a perfect 14-for-14 mark with the lead or a share of it after 54 holes.

    With that in mind, how could you expect any different. When he gets the lead on Sunday, the world's No. 1 player has adapted a prevent defense. He puts away the driver, for the most part, sets the accelerator on cruise and starts humming a Dave Clark Five song: "Catch Me If You Can."

    Woods didn't believe anyone could, nor did anyone else. And time, after time, after time, no one does. Like clockwork, when Woods assumes a threatening position, the competition cowers and cries "Uncle." Sometimes just one player turtles, sometimes a bunch of them do. It has become so inevitable that a betting house in England began paying off those who bet on Tiger to win this PGA Championship a day early.

    The 33-year-old Woods, winner of 70 PGA Tour events, attended Stanford and picks out his own outfits a year ahead of time — i.e. he’s no dummy. He has employed a finishing method that presents the least amount of risk in order to achieve the maximum result. Actually, giving Woods' ownership of the blueprint is a little off base. Many major champions have walked the same walk over the years, including one named Nicklaus.

    The bottom line is Woods knows he need not go out and win a tournament he leads, he need only be careful not to lose it. For the better part of his final round on Sunday, the better-safe-than-sorry system was in play and working beautifully. Woods kept the training wheels on, hit the middle of the greens, lagged his puts effectively and made pars. Nothing ventured, everything gained.

    When Padraig Harrington — perceived to be the most serious threat — self-destructed for a second week in succession, the auto-pilot was humming. Harrington went from one stroke back and a tie for second to six back and tied for 11th in one horrific hole. A snowman in Minnesota is certainly appropriate, but there is a time and place for everything. The eighth hole at Hazeltine on Sunday was no time to pack snow.

    Harrington won two majors while Woods was out of action last year. But he has now collapsed during head-to-head showdowns on consecutive weeks. As Harrington walked off with his quintuple-bogey, somewhere Casey Stengel had to be muttering, "Can’t anybody here play this game?"

    The runway appeared to be clear once more; a 15th major championship seemed to be a formality for Woods. Who could blame Woods for being lulled into sleep.

    “I was in control of the tournament most of the day,” said Woods, who finished with a final-round 3-over 75. “I was playing well, hitting the ball well. I was making nothing, but still either tied for the lead or ahead.”

    But golf is not supposed to be like that. It should not be so predictable, so monotonous, so irrefutable. Finally, someone reminded us of that. Finally, someone did not go quietly.

    While no one was taking Y.E. Yang seriously, he was taking his time, playing alongside Woods in the final pairing, sticking like a rash. Still in position to strike, Yang got the break he needed, a miraculous chip-in from the rough on No. 14 that rolled across the green and into the cup for an eagle. The shot seemed to awaken Woods, who responded with an 8-foot putt for birdie.

     

    But the exchange gave Yang a one-stroke lead with four holes to play. Repeat, this is not Harrington, Lucas Glover, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim or any number of "name" players who have failed to collar Woods over the years. Someone named Yang had restored the concept that nothing is pre-ordained and no one is invulnerable, not even ... (pause to clear your throat) ... Tiger Woods.

    “I don’t think anyone has ever gone 14-for-14 or 15-for-15,” Woods said afterward. “So I certainly ... like today, I played well enough to win the championship. I did not putt well enough to win the championship. I didn’t get it done on the greens and consequently, I didn’t win the tournament.”

     

    Momentum is not an iPhone app, available at the click of an icon. Turns out it’s not in the fabric of a red shirt, the label of a Nike swoosh or the power of a reputation either. Momentum is up for grabs and once Yang had it, even the phenomenal Woods could not get it back.

    Yang’s lightning approach shot to the 18th green confirmed as much, Woods’ 33 putts and comeback-killing bogeys on the last two greens offered corroboration.

    “You have to make putts and I didn’t do that,” Woods said. “All the other 14 major championship I have won, I’ve putted well for the entire week. And today was a day that didn’t happen.

    “You look at the way Y.E. played, he did all the things he needed to do ... you look at his round, and I think he played beautifully.”

    This has been an amazing season for Woods, who has come back from reconstructive knee surgery to win five PGA Tour events. This was his last chance to make the year especially sublime by adding another major championship to his collection.

    Given his standards, the near miss will be disappointing. But the residual fallout is good for Woods, good for golf. After he missed the cut at the British Open — something he had done only one other time in his professional career — the second-place finish is a reaffirmation of the Hanky Haney alterations he has made in his game.

    “One of the reasons why I changed my game with Hank is to be more consistent in the big events,” Woods said. “My career has certainly been much more consistent over the last five years. I’ve finished higher in major championships I don’t win.”

     

    Perhaps we will see a different Woods on his next Sunday with the lead at a major. Perhaps he will have his foot more firmly on the pedal. Perhaps this will flame his competitive fires and push him to be even better — if that is possible.

    At the same time, maybe there is a little more excitement in the game of professional golf today than there was a day earlier. Competition loses its lure when the outcome is discernible, when nothing is in doubt. Everyone appreciates Woods’ incredible record. But everyone appreciates a good fight. Thanks to Y.E. Yang for reminding us.