2006: PGA Championship - Virtuoso

Eggs come by the dozen. Doughnuts and golf balls, too. Majors don’t come in such measures. Not ordinarily, at least. Then again, the phenom who has us ripping through the history books these days, who has us crunching numbers with the fervor of an accountant on April 15, isn’t all too ordinary.

As we continue to learn, he’s more like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent, like Beethoven still maturing as he composes on the ivory keys. Enjoy it.

Early afternoon on Aug. 20, two men only two years apart in age walked to the first tee at Medinah No. 3 for the final round of the 88th PGA Championship. One, Luke Donald, 28, has a compass targeted toward greatness, diligently aspiring to get there. The other, Tiger Woods, 30, knows the destination well.

Seven years after he captured his second career major at Medinah No. 3 – the 1999 PGA, when he was just getting steady on his wobbly professional legs – a more erudite Woods conjured more Windy City magic, adding another Wanamaker trophy to his presumably steel-reinforced mantel. On the weekend, it was as if he was two different players, shooting 65 Saturday in a dazzling ballstriking display, then nailing down the title with some stellar bunker play and putting artistry a day later.

There you have it, Tiger’s Concerto No. 12.

“He has more desire than anybody I’ve ever come across,” said Woods’ longtime caddie, Steve Williams. “If you have the desire to do something, and you have the work ethic to make that desire happen, it’s going to happen.”

Well, it’s happening. Woods’ recent prowess – 2-1-1-1 since his early dismissal at the U.S. Open – has stirred the ghosts of 1999-2000, when he won 16 times and stuffed four majors in his pocket. He’s that same guy who was winning then, only now he has more shots, better distance control, a more sound technical understanding of his swing when it goes awry, and the seasoning of 10 years on Tour.

“That makes me feel old,” he said, smiling. “If you compare it to how I was here in ’99 versus how I am now in 2006, (I have) just a better understanding of how to get more out of my round and how to handle the emotions better.”

He also has shots others don’t. Saturday, it was a 3-iron from the heavens on the 250-yard 13th hole that landed like a cotton swab. “It was something I’ve never seen before,” said fellow competitor Chris Riley, who has been playing against Woods for 20 years. On Sunday it was a 60-yard bunker shot at 14, struck with an open-faced 8-iron, or the 255-yard 5-wood blast to the green at No. 7 following a pitchout.

Woods started the final round at Medinah even with Donald and two ahead of Mike Weir, but it wasn’t much of a race. The field behind Woods turned out to be mere Wanamaker wannabes, wilting after three days of a Bob Hope birdiefest at spongy-soft Medinah. His closest pursuers, Donald and Weir, who had shot 66 and 65 a day earlier, turned in rounds of 74-73. Charge? Hardly.

Shaun Micheel, the 2003 PGA champion, won Medinah’s B Flight by finishing 13 under, five back. Not to diminish Micheel’s spirited play – it was his first top 10 of the season – but Medinah 2006 didn’t move the needle like the Sergio Garcia-leaping-through-the-air version we had seven years earlier.

By the time Woods made the turn Sunday, he led by four, and nobody was going to run him down. As the others stepped aside, surrendering to Woods’ inherent brilliance, the stage deservedly was his, and he enjoyed it. Woods finished at 18-under 270, tying his own PGA mark for most strokes under par, winning a major by at least five shots for the fifth time.

And this all happened despite the fact he didn’t hit the ball too great Sunday.

“Tiger has a unique ability to play well when he thinks he’s not playing well,” Micheel said. “I mean, we all kind of smirk and laugh when he says he’s got his ‘B’ game, but that’s better than most of our ‘A’ games.”

Asked when he realized the tournament was realistically over, Chris DiMarco didn’t hesitate: “Saturday night.”

How quickly this golf season turned on its axis. At the start of summer, golf’s cognoscenti were talking a MickelSlam, but one drive off a tent at Winged Footsquashed all that. Believe it or not, on the heels of Hoylake, we’re now halfway to another potential sweep: Tiger Slam II. Spot him a fifth Masters in April (one for the thumb), where he’ll be a prohibitive favorite – and come next June at Oakmont, it’s not so far-fetched, is it?

Woods’ Medinah romp was his third consecutive triumph (and fourth top 2) since his disappointing U.S. Open return following the May death of his father Earl. Tiger heard Earl’s words echoing through his head Sunday at Medinah, particularly on the greens, where he rolled the rock like some reincarnation of Bobby Locke/Ben Crenshaw in their primes.

Take the most powerful player in the world, the one who is hands-down the toughest mentally, and all of a sudden give him a magic wand on the putting greens and some historic things can happen.

Woods had told swing coach Hank Haney on Saturday, “Hank, you’ve never seen me putt good.” He no longer can he make that claim after needing only 27 putts Sunday, an effort that included 40-foot bombs on Nos. 6 and 8 and a couple of key par saves as he closed out the tournament with a ho-hum 4-under 68.

“Today was a cool day,” he said, “just one of those special days on the greens. I thought, just get the ball on the green, anywhere, and I could handle it from there.”

Numbers? Here’s a few: For the second time, Woods shot four rounds in the 60s at a major (69-68-65-68), the other being the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews. He became the fifth person to win at least three PGAs, joining Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus (five each) and Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead (three each). He now has won each of the four majors by five or more strokes, and has won two or more consecutive majors three times, joining Ben Hogan. He is 12-for-12 when leading or co-leading a major after 54 holes. He also broke his tie with Hagen at 11 majors, leaving only he and you-know-who (18) at Nos. 1-2. Or is that 1 and 1A?

Woods has played 40 majors as a pro; Nicklaus won nine of his first 40. What used to be a question of “if” he’ll catch Jack has shifted to “when,” though Woods downplayed inching closer to the single goal that drives him like no other.

“It’s still a long way away,” he said. “It’s not something I could get next year.”

Woods has proven to be a man for all seasons, and all conditions. From the hard, dusty fairways of Royal Liverpool, he adjusted his game to the soft, lush conditions of Medinah. The PGA sent an early message that this was no U.S. Open, causing some players to say it felt like just another Tour event.

A combination of factors, including high humidity, overwatering, rain and three days of heavy cloud cover left the longest course in major history (7,561 yards) virtually defenseless against the best field of the year (94 of the top 100 players). Sixty players broke par Thursday, and 40 players finished four days in the red.

The PGA’s traditional major winners pairing delivered Woods and Mickelson alongside the emerging Geoff Ogilvy on Thursday-Friday, and the heavyweight trio did not disappoint. Mickelson’s short-game guru, Dave Pelz, heated up the 1-2 matchup by saying when Mickelson was at his best, “I’m thinking nobody can beat him.”

To which Woods shot back, “I think I’m pretty tough to beat when I’m playing well, too.”

Touché.

Mickelson, the ’05 PGA champ, tried to keep up amid the birdie barrage of the third round, but when a mud ball at 18 sent his 8-iron approach careening over the green and led to a bogey, it left him at 8 under, six behind Woods and Donald, and too far back to do anything Sunday. For Lefty, there was encouragement to be found in a sharper iron game, but after tying for 16th, Mickelson’s major season is one viewed more empty (as in the one that got away at Winged Foot) than full (Masters).

Donald, the Englishman and part-time Chicagoan by way of Northwestern, became the latest challenger to Woods’ throne, stepping into a Sunday cauldron in which few have prospered. The Americanization of Donald’s game under coach Pat Goss has been interesting to watch, as he has moved his ground game into the air, adding height and distance without losing any of his laser accuracy with his irons.

Donald had gotten in his own way in previous majors, starting slow. At the U.S. Open, he beat the entire field by two over the final 54 holes, and that bolstered his confidence.

“I put it down to ‘too hard expectations,’ and really getting upset with myself and not being too good mentally,” Donald said.

He said he’d be fine alongside Woods on Sunday, and even showed up wearing some of Tiger’s trademark red. But after making 16 birdies his first three rounds, he managed zero Sunday, looking out of sorts the way a young Mike Weir had seven years earlier when he shot 80 alongside Woods in the final round.

“I’ll learn from this,” vowed Donald, “and be a stronger player.”

The common denominator between Weir and Donald? Woods. As others try their best to sort through the nerves of Sunday, he thrives, and therein lies the separation.

“What makes Tiger different, and we all know it, is that he is able to play his best golf when it means the most, and that’s what makes a great champion,” said Williams.

“What enables him to play the best is that the guy has more desire and more determination than anybody else. We all know what he’s trying to do, what he’s trying to accomplish.”

Woods has made that clear since tacking Nicklaus’ records to his bedroom wall as a child. As PGA president Roger Warren stood in the clubhouse after Sunday’s finish to raise a ceremonial toast to the champion, his script told him to introduce the champion and read his “bio.”

Right. He laughed, because he knew better. Too many members had to be to work in 12 hours. It’s a safe bet Tiger Woods was back to work, Monday, too, Augusta already on his mind.

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