Tiger in top form

CHASKA, Minn. – It was only 11 a.m. on an overcast Thursday here in The Land of 10,000 Lakes, and Tiger Woods made his way across the back of the property over to the first hole, his 10th of the round, already 2 under par for his morning. To the delight of a huge gallery that lined up 15 deep in some portions of the fairway, off came Frank the headcover. Out came the big stick. Whooooooooosh!

Just a few feet away from Woods sat the shiny, hefty, famed Wanamaker Trophy. So early, and yet as he piped that monstrous drive that split the fairway, his driver shaft twirling confidently in his hands as the ball flew, it’s a wonder some official from the PGA of America didn’t just tell him to take the trophy along with him as he exited the tee.

Granted, this major business is a marathon, not a sprint, and we have a long, long way to go. But Tiger Woods teed off a heavy favorite, and by Round 1’s end, when he inked his John Hancock to a scorecard that showed him at 5-under 67, we all were left to wonder who might be battling for the Hazeltine ‘B’ Flight this week.

“It wasn’t anything crazy,” shrugged fellow competitor Rich Beem, who edged Woods by a shot to win the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine and played alongside him Thursday. “He made maybe one long putt today. He’s just very efficient. Never looked like he was going to make bogey ... It was easy.”

Easy? “Easy” and “majors” go together like Democrats and the PGA Tour. In other words, the two seldom mix. But that was a pretty fair way to describe Woods’ smooth, rhythmic opening effort. His tee shots were long and straight, his irons for the most part crisp, the putter maybe not yet scorching, but starting to run a nice fever. It all added up to 67, and only once in his four PGA title runs has he opened better.

To watch Woods at Hazeltine was to appreciate his complete artistry. It’s not just the good stuff. When he slipped up, he recovered, sometimes as only he does. A poor 4-iron into the first green that was sprayed short and right was erased with a deft, short-side up and down. A 3-wood approach hung out to the right and refusing to draw at the 633-yard third (his 12th) played a little pinball off some thick elms, then spit out into the edge of the right rough. A good break, yes. But Woods has the gift to make the most of his fortune, so what followed was a nice pitch from 60 yards to 30 feet behind the pin at the elevated green, and another birdie putt to the bottom.

How does one possibly compete with that? Buy a bowling ball, perhaps. Or a scratch ticket. Because this didn’t bear any resemblance to be the guy who last month spent Friday evening at Turnberry packing his bags.

The worst news for mere mortals? Coming off back-to-back victories (Buick Open, WGC-Bridgestone) in a rare three-week run, Woods seems not to be tiring, but to be picking up steam. He is the chiseled running back who somehow summons the grit to run his hardest and break off his biggest gains in the fourth quarter. Apparently Elin and the kids must have been reminding him his 2009 major mantel is looking a little, well, sparse. Those two factors lead one to believe that if current form holds, Woods will not be left majorless in a season for the first time since 2004. Like Albert Pujols, this is a man simply too talented to go 0-for-4.

Bob Wood, current VP at Nike who spent many years running and building the company’s golf division, knows Woods as few others do. On the days he walks in Woods’ thick gallery, as he did Thursday, he fills his time with a couple missions. One, he likes to people watch – specifically, to see what people are wearing (especially on their feet). Secondly, he likes to listen to people in the crowd, soak in the comments, the insights, especially in a down-to-earth, Middle America truck stop such as Chaska, which doesn’t regularly get a Broadway production to visit.

“In a place like this, or a British Open, it’s fun to hear the crowd talk about Tiger and how excited they are just to see him,” Wood said. “It’s like they’re watching Babe Ruth, or Michael Jordan ... they know they are getting to see something special. Very, very special.”

That certainly was the takeaway in Round 1 at Hazeltine. The last time we were here, Woods didn’t so much lose the tournament; he simply ran out of holes. Beem watched his big back-nine cushion evaporate when Woods hit the accelerator late, making birdies at his final four holes, including a 7-iron that dropped from the heavens at 18, stopping 4 feet from the hole.

Basically, he picked up Thursday where he left off seven years ago. This time, though, if one round was enough to send a poignant, resounding message through the hills of this former dairyland, it’s that Woods won’t be leaving town without that trophy.

“I feel pretty comfortable when I’m playing well,” Woods said Thursday.

You think? And when he plays well, we all know how it turns out, as we’ve learned, oh, some 70 times before. Three more days, and the gap between him and Jack Nicklaus could close to three major titles.

The good news? After four successful runs, the engraver parked at Hazeltine this week can etch “Tiger Woods” in his sleep. Heck, for all we know, he might have started shortly before dinner Thursday.

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