2006: Hello Tiger, goodbye drama

Medinah, Ill.

The difference between Tiger Woods at the turn of the century and Tiger Woods now is clear. He used to win major championships by eight or 15 strokes and now he wins them by only five. Tough deal, being roughly half the man you used to be.

Despite the slippage, Woods somehow has found a way to win four of the last eight majors. The latest, of course, was the 88th PGA Championship at moist Medinah, where the ground was as soft as most of Woods’ competition.

About the only thing Woods did wrong all week was wear an ornate orange shirt in the second round that, if I’m not mistaken, Grier Jones wore in the 1975 Inverrary Classic.

It wasn’t as bad as the Sergio canary suit of last month, but the top did seem to scream for a gold chain as an accent. Duffy Waldorf donates shirts like that to the Salvation Army, and Don Ho has worn them to numerous luaus.

That aside, Woods again showed he is the most dominant golfer ever. He has won all four majors by at least five strokes, thereby completing the Slaughter Slam. Take his largest margin of victory in each event and he has bagged golf’s four jewels by an average of 10 strokes, thanks largely to runaways in the U.S. Open by 15 shots and Masters by 12. What’s more, he has done so with three different swings, proving he’s king of the range as well as the course.

History has shown there are two primary ways to defeat Woods in majors, besides bodily harm. Beat him to the top by Saturday night and get him on a par-70 course. The great one has won all of his majors when leading after 54 holes. He’s 12-for-12, putting him two-thirds of the way to Jack Nicklaus’ record 18.

When he gets the lead, he plays like a man hunting his first meal in days. And his opponents play less than their best. These guys play more matador defense than Loyola Marymount’s basketball team used to. In Woods’ major victories, only three of his playing partners have broken 70 in the last round. Nobody this side of Chris DiMarco and Bob May has passed him on Sundays. While Woods’ average is 69.25 in those dozen fourth rounds, his opponents in the final group have averaged 72.9. That’s a difference of almost four strokes.

“What separates Tiger is his ability to play his best golf when it matters the most,” caddie Steve Williams said. “He has more desire and determination than anyone else.”

Woods’ peers are using the word “scary” again when talking about his focus. They marvel at his ability to not beat himself.

“You would think going to the first tee that he would feel the pressure because everybody is expecting him to win, and it’s the opposite,” said DiMarco, second to Woods in two majors. “The guy playing with him feels the most pressure. . . . (Woods) looks more comfortable leading on the back nine of a major than playing the first hole of a tournament, and that’s pretty scary. It’s unbelievable he can feel that comfortable.”

Based on his 30 percent success rate in Grand Slam events, Woods is on pace to tie Nicklaus at the 2011 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club. Here are other telling numbers to gnaw on: Woods is 1-for-16 on par 70s and 10-for-18 on par 72s. That’s a remarkable 55 percent success rate on the latter. Give him four par 5s and he’s going to beat you better than half the time, mainly because of power, but also because of short game.

“That goes to being a long hitter,” his coach Hank Haney said. “It just feeds into his game. He’s a phenomenal long-iron player and hits a lot of par 5s in two.”

He won at Medinah because he had only one three-putt, made only three bogeys, hit 17 greens in regulation Saturday and made two 40-footers Sunday. If the British Open was about Tiger irons, the PGA was about Tiger woods. He wore out his 5- and 3-woods and used his driver just a few times daily, only twice on Sunday.

It used to be that if a course took away Woods’ driver, it hurt him. Now it seems to help. “It definitely favors him when he doesn’t have to hit driver,” DiMarco said. “When he’s putting the ball in play off the tee, it’s pretty scary.”

It’s perhaps frightening, too, that Woods and Williams say he’s better than he was six years ago when in the process of winning four consecutive majors.

“He’s hitting the ball better and controlling it better than in 2000,” Williams said. “I believe he can play better than he did during that stretch, and he’s starting to show that now.”

Woods is conditioned to make history. Other players are trying to make a living or a nice career. Others have stepped up, but only temporarily.

Phil Mickelson is the latest to retreat. Mickelson had a chance to win his third consecutive major and four of 10 at the U.S. Open this June. But Mickelson blew it when he hit a tent and a tree during a last-hole double bogey. Since, the game has shifted back to its familar axis, with Woods dominating majors and Mickelson playing wildly. Mickelson’s long swing has been out of whack since the Masters. With a tendency to follow overcut shots with hooks, Lefty has scored 25 shots higher than Woods in the last two majors.

“When TV commentators talk about how (crooked) Tiger drives it, they ought to include Phil in there, too,” Haney said after Round 2. “He’s hitting it all over the place.”

Woods overcame the Thursday-Friday sideshows of playing with Nick Faldo at the British and Mickelson here. His pairing with Mickelson was billed as a 1-2 showdown. TNT compared the two with Affirmed-Alydar, Chamberlain-Russell, Navratilova-Evert. After four days, Abdul-Jabbar-Laimbeer seemed a better fit.

Woods again showed he’s a man for all seasons and surfaces. In the matter of a month, he excelled in opposite conditions, reaching 18 under on both the hardpan of Hoylake and the soft ground of Medinah. He’s like the tennis star who can conquer on clay, grass and hardcourt.

Also in the matter of a month, he sucked the drama out of two majors. Sundays used to be fun before he came along. Once upon a time, we didn’t know who would win.

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