2005: Furyk doesn’t fold under Tiger’s charge

Lemont, Ill.

So the questions stop for Jim Furyk. How’s your wrist?

Why haven’t you won in two years? Have those three second-place finishes this year bothered you? What about blowing a lead last week?

On one gorgeous holiday Sunday, Furyk gave a strong answer punctuated by an exclamation point at the Cialis Western Open. He overcame a four-stroke deficit to Ben Curtis on the front nine. Then he broke a tie and held off world No. 1 Tiger Woods on the back.

When he holed out for a two-stroke victory over Woods at Cog Hill, there was a mixture of relief and pride.

“You take the combination of going through surgery (March 2004) and not winning since the surgery, you put all that together, it was a little bit of an emotional win,” Furyk said after joining Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval and Justin Leonard as 35-and-under players with at least 10 PGA Tour victories. “This definitely was a big step.”

The rich merely got richer, again. The victory was the 24th out of 27 this year by players ranked in the top 31 in the world. It was Furyk’s fourth consecutive Western top-10 finish and sixth overall. Not surprisingly, Furyk subscribes to the “horses for courses” theory. He might as well sign on to the “aces for places” notion, for the highlight of Furyk’s golf life came two years ago 40 minutes away in the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields.

“Every time I come back to Chicago it feels very warm to me,” he said.

Part of the reason is his game heats up here. With eight top 10s this year and confidence gained from victory, he’s British Open-ready. He opened with 64 at Cog and closed with 67-69 on the weekend for 14-under-par 270. He won because he led the field in greens in regulation (75 percent), tied for third in driving accuracy (79 percent) and made a lot of putts (tied for 13th in putting average). He won because he fined-tuned the sometimes troublesome backswing-downswing transition in his unorthodox move this spring.

“He’s one of the toughest guys to beat head-to-head,” said Woods, who surpassed $50 million in Tour earnings. “He’s an unbelievable competitor. Last week was an aberration.”

Furyk lit up like Fourth of July fireworks when he heard that.

“He’s as tough as they come on the golf course,” Furyk said. “To get a compliment like that from him means a lot.”

The week prior at the Barclays Classic in Harrison, N.Y., Furyk bogeyed No. 16 and missed a 3-footer at 17 and lost when Padraig Harrington holed a 65-foot eagle putt at the last. Furyk stewed over that, then said he “put it to rest” the next day.

“This,” Furyk said, “takes a little bit of the sting out of that.”

Furyk, though, was stung again early on Western Sunday. Furyk fell four shots behind when he bogeyed Nos. 2 and 3 while 54-hole co-leader Ben Curtis birdied them. But Furyk pulled even when he made two birdies and Curtis two bogeys over the next three holes.

“(Furyk could) easily have gone the other way early but never let that faze him,” Curtis said.

Furyk assumed at least a share of the lead to stay when Curtis, struggling with his driving, bogeyed No. 8. Curtis drove into a hazard and, from the ninth tee, made an up-and-down out of the Seve Ballesteros handbook. Call it losing the lead spectacularly.

Curtis would falter and finish third, his second top 10 in 42 PGA Tour starts since he shockingly won the 2003 British Open. He had been slumping badly this year but said he found some confidence by making a lot of birdies at home the week before.

“My confidence,” he said, “is coming back.”

As Curtis retreated, Woods charged into a tie for the lead with Furyk at 13 under by birdieing Nos. 9 and 10 and sinking a 54-foot eagle putt at the par-5, 575-yard 11th, where his drive hit a cart path and left him a 9-iron second shot from 204 yards.

“You have another player making a run, I wouldn’t have heard quite as much commotion up ahead,” Furyk said. “I wouldn’t have had about a half-dozen people telling me Tiger was coming to get me. It was more funny than anything because I wanted to say, ‘Yeah, I can read the scoreboard, too, and I can hear the noise.’ ”

In reality, Furyk would respond by quickly going four strokes ahead. He holed putts of 20 and 10 feet at Nos. 11 and 12 for three consecutive birdies, and Woods bogeyed Nos. 13 and 14. The first hiccup came on three putts from 63 feet; the one at No. 14 happened when he “tried to get too cute” and left a shot in a bunker.

Woods shot 66, the day’s best score by two strokes, even though he made three bogeys. Woods is having a Woods-like year, with three victories, including his fourth Masters title. And he has momentum going into the British Open at St. Andrews, where he won by eight shots in 2000. He has finished third at the Memorial, second at the U.S. Open and second here in his last three starts.

What’s different from his seemingly invincible days of 1999-2002 is that Woods seems more susceptible to making consecutive bogeys down the stretch. He did so on the last two holes of regulation at the Masters, on holes 70 and 71 of the Open and on the back nine of the Western. There was a time Woods didn’t seem to have as much backup capacity.

“It surprised me because he’s such a good player,” Furyk said of Woods’ retreat. “That’s the only negative of being the best; everyone expects you to be perfect. If he makes a mistake, it sticks out more.

“He doesn’t make those mistakes very often, but I’m happy I was on the receiving end of one, I know that. I’ve taken the sting from him a couple of times.”

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