Sunday, August 20, 2006

"He's Just Frightening"

While following Tiger Woods make his way around Medinah Country Club Sunday afternoon, smothering the life out of every possible challenger before he made the turn, I ran into CBS announcer David Feherty who was bird-dogging Woods' round.
"He's almost perfect," I said.
"He's just frightening is what he is," Feherty said before scooting off to talk to the world.
He's right.
Woods is frighteningly good.
It was no surprise that he won the PGA Championship Sunday by five shots, though it was a shock that Shaun Micheel was his closest challenger.
Woods is -- pardon the cliche -- on his way to becoming the greatest player ever. He was brilliant at Medinah, avoiding trouble and saving himself when he did make a mistake.
Did you see the par save he made from the bunker at No. 13? He was 70 feet from the flag with a pond behind the hole and he left himself a routine three-footer for par.
"Best up and down of the year," caddie Steve Williams told his boss.
It would be the best of most of our lifetimes.
But that's what Woods does routinely. He's consistently brilliant, especially in major championships.
It's easy to say that someone, anyone, should step up and challenge the guy but, unless Woods helps them, they can't beat him.
"He's just better than us," U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said after getting an eyeful in the first two rounds.
Woods has a vibe about him that's undeniable. Luke Donald made 16 birdies the first three days and none Sunday while playing with Tiger.
Don't think so.
Woods has 12 major championship wins now, two-thirds of the way to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18. Tiger says it will take him a career to catch or pass Nicklaus.
Perhaps -- if he intends to retire in about five years.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Never On Sunday

Doesn't this all seem so familiar?
Like deja vu all over again?
No wonder.
Tiger Woods is tied for the lead entering the final round of another major championship -- this one the Buick Open disguised as the PGA Championship -- and he always wins when he's ahead with 18 holes to play in a major.
Eleven for 11.
And soon to be 12 for 12.
How can you pick against Woods on Sunday of a major? As I've said before, he's the best closer since the guillotine.
Someone asked Geoff Ogilvy, one of my new favorites because of his thoughtfulness not to mention a wonderful game, if Woods wins because others fall apart around him. Mostly, Ogilvy said, Woods just plays better than everyone else.
That's why he's such a favorite today. His game looks as sharp as in 2000 and we know how good it was then.
He's doing a great job of managing his way around a course and with his swing dialed in, there are no weaknesses.
Asked Saturday if he was surprised, considering he missed the cut at the U.S. Open two months ago, to have won two straight tournaments and to be on the verge of a third, including his second straight major, Woods just smiled and shook his head.
"Uh-uh," he said.
Neither is anyone else.
If this is the Sunday that finally trips up Woods, it will likely be because Medinah is so soft that someone may shoot a ridiculous number and beat him. He gets beat, you know. Rich Beem did it. Others have.
Tiger loves majors where pars are what you play for and birdies are like gold. At Medinah, softened by the rain, birdies are like M&Ms at a kid's birthday party. They're everywhere.
But he can make them, too.
He knows he'll have to make a bunch on Sunday. I'm guessing he'll make enough.

Friday, August 18, 2006

It's Only Just Begun

Two days into the PGA Championship and what do we know for certain?
We know Vijay Singh missed his second straight cut in a major championship.
We know Brett Wetterich isn't going to be on the Ryder Cup team.
We know Tiger Woods is playing the third round with his buddy Chris Riley, which means he'll be chattier than usual during a major championship week.
Otherwise, this PGA Championship is still wide open, or at least as open as a major can be with Tiger sitting one off the lead with 36 holes remaining.
If I had to pick one of the four leaders -- Henrik Stenson, Billy Andrade, Tim Herron or Luke Donald -- as the most likely to still be leading Sunday night, I'd pick Donald, who has a major victory in his future, perhaps this weekend.
He's a really solid player and that wins majors -- on the rare times Tiger doesn't win them.
If I'm picking a winner right now, it's obviously Tiger. I'm not stupid. He may just win Tiger Slam II.
As for Phil Mickelson, he has two drivers in his bag and can't hit either one in the fairway. Unless he finds magic in his video session with Rick Smith overnight, Phil's won his last major this year.
And what about Davis Love? He was tied for the lead on Sunday in the PGA last year and crumbled. He needs a good weekend here in the worst way.
Maybe I'm wrong but I think he produces at Medinah. That doesn't mean he's going to win but he's going to hang in there.
Ask me Saturday night and I may feel totally different about all of this.

TGIF at Medinah

Major championships have personalities.
The Masters is outwardly genteel, painted in springtime, but it's really a demon with greens that can make grown men cry. Or four putt.
The U.S. Open is just miserable, a contest to see who can make the fewest bogeys, protecting par like Coca-Cola protects its recipe.
The British Open goes for old world style, buffetted by wind and played on brown golf courses where the ball tends to roll like a runaway marble.
And then there is the PGA, just a good tough tournament where everyone plays.
But this PGA, at least halfway through, has gone soft. Too soft.
"This isn't playing like a major championship, in my opinion and in most opinions," Arron Oberholser said. "It's just like (the) Wachovia (Championship). It looks like Wachovia. If you can keep it in the fairway, you can shoot some scores.
"This week, I dare say, is turning into a putting contest as long as you hit your driver in the fairway."
Well, then.
Of course, 60 players broke par on Thursday, the most sub-par rounds on one day in the history of the PGA Championship, which dates back before Jack Nicklaus.
It may get easier before it gets harder. It's forecast to rain overnight, which would soften already soft greens.
But it's fun to watch the best players in the world making birdies.
And, maybe by Saturday, we'll have figured out what a Henrik Stenson is.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

One Down, Three To Go

So what to make of the PGA Championship after 18 holes?
Lucas Glover and Chris Riley are tied for the lead, Billy Andrade who was at the movies on Tuesday when he found out he'd gotten in as an alternate is one back and Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have another date on Friday.
If there's a surprise, it's how easy Medinah was on Thursday. Sixty players broke par which, if that happened in the U.S. Open, could lead to the end of golf as we know it.
In addition to having soft greens, Medinah's length is diminished because much of it comes on the par-3s, which play downhill and then some. That's one reason 50-year old Fred Funk can shoot 69 and be on the leaderboard but it doesn't explain Vijay Singh shooting a 73 that probably felt like 83.
It's just a guess but Riley isn't likely to stay near the front though he has twice finished in the top five in the PGA. He's a dad now and talks lovingly about how much he likes being with his two young children.
Riley, of course, will forever be remembered for begging off one match in the 2004 Ryder Cup because he was tired. That's what Riley said then and it branded him, fairly or not.
He was tired, he said Thursday, because his new baby was less than two weeks old and he'd slept about six hours in two weeks. It's understandable but Riley may never outlive his preference to stretch out in the recliner rather than go another 18 for his country.
If you're not totally familiar with Glover, he's a genuinely likeable guy from Greenville, S.C., who desperately wants to make the Ryder Cup team. Glover is blessed with the kind of natural atheltic ability you can't fake and a good finish this weekend may convince Tom Lehman to pick him even if he doesn't qualify.

Breakfast With Tiger and Phil

It takes a while to get to the 10th tee at Medinah Country Club. It's a good 25-minute walk through what feels like a giant park but there were thousands lining the 10th fairway Thursday morning when Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Geoff Ogilvy teed off in the PGA Championship.
There were, by one officially unofficial count, 25 photographers documenting their every swing, move, smile, sneer and yawn when play began and probably another 75 or 100 semi-official types scurrying inside the ropes to get an unobstructed view of the big show.
Phil and Tiger had a brief handshake on the tee then went and stood on opposite sides of the tee waiting to start.
Woods rattled his opening tee shot off a tree, chopped out, hit a miserable third shot that missed the green, skinnied a chip shot 20 feet past the hole and opened with a double bogey that must've tasted like yesterday's coffee.
Phil, meanwhile, hit the first par-5 in two, made an easy birdie then followed with a birdie at the second, at which point he was three shots ahead of Woods and one ahead of Ogilvy, who at least had the good manners not to stick the U.S. Open trophy in Phil's face.
If you went looking for evidence of a cold war, it was hard to find. They were just guys going about the business of playing golf. As the round unfolded, Phil ran into a case of the sideways while Tiger found his rhythm, eventually matching Phil's 2-under par 34 on the first nine.
Ogilvy quietly played along, making an occasional birdie and an occasional bogey.
For seekers of high drama, it fell a little short on the juice meter but Thursday mornings are tough to get excited about.
Unless you're Billy Andrade, who occupied the top of the leaderboard most of the morning. He made it look easy.
And, if you wanted to see him play, you didn't have to fight the crowd.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Where Dreams Take Flight

The enduring memory of the 1999 PGA Championship played at Medinah may not be Tiger Woods' second career major championship victory but Sergio Garcia's spectacular eyes-closed shot from against a red oak tree to the right of the 16th fairway.
That was the one where Sergio took off like Edwin Moses, leaping into the air to see where his shot landed and, in the process, became a star.
So did the tree.
Since then, it's become a tourist attraction at Medinah, which is home to three courses and covers approximately as much acreage as Rhode Island.
Visitors playing Course No. 3 routinely go by the tree and at least take a practice swing from where Garcia stood. It gets so much action, the maintenance crew has to put down fresh sod a couple times a year.
The big tree, one of literally hundreds of gorgeous hardwoods on the property, is showing its age but has a few more years left, according to various reports.
Garcia stopped by there during his practice round this week, reacquainting himself with the tree.
Phil Mickelson, known to take a few chances in his time, said he never would have tried the shot Garcia hit.
"The shot he hit was just crazy," Mickelson said. "I would never try that. I think you should always pitch out to the middle of the fairway and hit an 8-iron on.
"What are these guys thinking nowadays?"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Once More, With Feeling

It's a good thing Chicago has winter, otherwise the whole world might live here.
Tuesday at Medinah, site of the PGA Championship, was almost as pretty as the pairing sheet which has put Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together (with Geoff Ogilvy) in the first two rounds which begin Thursday morning.
Perfectly sunny. Temperature nudging just over 80 degrees. The humidity on vacation in Florida. Grass green enough to get Augusta's attention.
And a major championship, too.
It wasn't long ago that the PGA Championship was that other major, the one they played in August and no one except Golf Channel junkies seemed to care about.
But now the PGA Championship is cool. It's played at great courses, understands that birdies aren't necessarily bad and annually produces a more entertaining tournament than the U.S. Open, which essentially rewards the last man standing.
This PGA starts with a grocery list of possibilities. Tiger and Phil paired together. Sergio Garcia reunited with his red oak. Vaughn Taylor trying to nail down a Ryder Cup spot.
Something's bound to happen.