Take Tiger Woods out of the equation and the $5 million WGC-American Express Championship might have been exciting.
But it turned out to be just another routine march to victory for Woods. Once again, the rest of the field was playing for second place.
Of course, take Woods out of the tournament and 120,174 people wouldn’t have flocked to Mount Juliet, an American-like golf course in the middle of nowhere. Perfect weather, perfect conditions and virtual perfection from Woods made it a, well, perfect week for golf. Quite simply, it was the biggest golf tournament ever staged in the Emerald Isle, and it lived up to expectations.
Opening back-to-back 65s by Woods meant he practically had the tournament wrapped up after 36 holes. He led by three after two rounds. He then indulged in not one, but two, victory laps of honor on the weekend. Rounds of 67-66 gave Woods the title. His 25-under-par 263 total came within two shots of the PGA European Tour’s 72-hole record.
Not even a course-record-tying 62 by 2001 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen knocked Woods off his stride. Sergio Garcia had set the course record earlier in the day, and Goosen could have broken it on the final green, but missed a 20-foot birdie putt.
Goosen got within one shot after an eagle at the par-5 17th hole. Woods then hit a bad drive at 17, found the rough with his second shot, but pitched to 15 feet and routinely holed the birdie putt.
Crisis? What crisis?
Woods called his third shot to the 17th from a poor lie the most crucial of the week.
“The lie was pretty gnarly,” he said. “I knew that was probably going to be the shot of the tournament. If I am aggressive on the shot and I hit too far behind it and blade it, I’ll probably lose the tournament. So I said, ‘Just suck it up there and put it on the green like you know you can and put yourself in a position to make a putt.’ ”
Not even a bogey on the final hole – where Woods failed to get up-and-down from rough beside the green – could stop him, although it did reduce his margin of victory over Goosen to one. Woods’ missed 4-foot putt for par was the only blemish on another near-flawless performance by the world No. 1.
That bogey at the final hole came after a photographer got trigger-happy as Woods stood over his second shot. After the camera click, Woods backed off, glared at the photographer, then pushed his approach into the right rough.
“It was the most important shot of the entire week, and he gets a happy finger,” Woods said. “It just threw my focus off. I never got it (the club) all the way back to where it should have been. I’m 236 yards out, I’m trying to hit a 4-iron there and it’s not exactly an easy shot.”
Woods was trying to become the first player since Lee Trevino at the 1974 Greater New Orleans Open to win a 72-hole PGA Tour event without a bogey.
The excitement that filled the small Irish town of Kilkenny was palpable. Orange-and-black checkered flags hung everywhere around town to celebrate the Kilkenny Hurling team winning the All-Irish Championships the previous Sunday. Wood’s arrival only heightened the town’s celebratory mood. It also meant golf was the only topic of conversation in the town’s bars all week. Since the Irish like to talk, and since there seems to be more bars per head in Kilkenny than anywhere else in Ireland, that meant there were a lot of birdies and bogeys discussed over pints of black liquid.
But most of the chat during the week concerned the Ryder Cup. Woods did his level best to deter that talk, saying there were a million reasons – all of them green – why he preferred to win the American Express Championship over the Ryder Cup. Of course, it helped that the credit card company pays Woods a lot of greenbacks to persuade people to use the its plastic.
There’s talk of the event returning to Kilkenny in two years. Note to organizing committee: Narrow the fairways or Woods could win the second installment at Mount Juliet with a score of 30 to 35 under. And the rest will be left to battle for second. Again.