He’s 32 now and not a kid anymore. The boyish face is still there, unlined but revealing a heaviness that comes with age and experience. His still lithe frame now features a suit of armor – rock hard, sinewy muscle that is fully in evidence only when he swings the club. Not muscle bound but hugely muscled up -both strength and flexibility giving him an advantage over almost all of his competitors.
The frightening intensity has, if anything, become even more a dominant factor in his game. His ability to tune out all the myriad distractions – the huge, raucous galleries, the hordes of photographers, the unbelievable pressure to perform up to expectations bespeak a discipline and mental toughness unheard of in golf or any other sport.
And then there is the final edge, the one part of him that above all others, separates him from other golfers and indeed, other athletes; his fierce, unbending will to win. Only one other athlete in my lifetime came close to possessing such a high level of competitiveness; Michael Jordan’s “refuse to lose” mindset was an astonishing thing to watch when the game was on the line and the ball was in his hands.
For Tiger Woods, it is this competitiveness that drives him to excel, to practice the game more than most, to constantly prepare his body and mind for the rigors of the tour while taking extra time to consciously elevate the level of his game for each of golf’s 4 major tests; The Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship (British Open), and the PGA Championship.
This week at the US Open Championship held at Torrey Pines golf club in San Diego, Tiger Woods is demonstrating once again – as if we ever need reminding – that he is not only the best golfer who ever lived but also the most remarkable figure in sports who ever competed. And he is doing while playing on one leg – barely 8 short weeks removed from knee surgery and without a competitive round of golf since the Masters in April.
The rust was evident that first round on Thursday as Woods struggled with a wayward driver and finicky putter to finish 1 over par. The second round didn’t start out much better as Woods bogeyed 2 of the first 4 holes and ballooned to +3. It seemed as if the rust and the sore knee would be just too much to overcome for Tiger.
But then, lightening struck on Tiger’s seventh hole as he sank a 25 footer for eagle. But once again, Torrey Pines reached up and bit him as Woods bogeyed his 8 and 9 holes putting him right back at +3 and 5 shots off the pace at that point. It seemed that Tiger’s driver accuracy had deserted him. His errant shots were finding the Torrey Pines super rough, making it nearly impossible to get a good approach shot into the green.
But all that changed starting on #1 (Woods began his day playing #10). Tiger ran off a strong of 3’s that gave him 4 birdies on the first 5 holes and finished his scintillating back nine on Friday shooting an eye-popping 5 under par 30 giving him an aggregate score of -2, just one shot off the lead.
Such a round would be enough for any superstar’s resume. Tiger, however, isn’t just “any superstar.” He is a phenomenon. At times he is nearly a force of nature – terrifyingly unstoppable. And like any storm or disturbance in nature, the only thing you can do is get out of his way.
It is Tiger’s Saturday round that will etch itself forever in the memory of the sport and those who witnessed it. You know you have seen something special when sportscasters simply give up trying to explain what was just seen and drop all efforts to describe it, to cover it in cliches or superlatives. Woods’ back nine on Saturday will simply stand on its own with no hyperbole possible or necessary – a testament to talent and courage that will live as long as sport itself.
Once again Woods started off a round poorly, finding himself 3 over par after 4 holes and dropping back in the pack to +1. He got back to even par with a nice birdie on #7 but fell back a stroke once again on 12. Woods was beginning to grimace after some swings. Obviously his surgically repaired knee was giving him some trouble.
On the par 5 13th, Woods drive went way to the right ending up near a concession tent. Given relief because of a TV tower that was in the way, Woods made the most of his break, smacking a 5-iron 240 yards on to the green. It appeared that with a two putt, Woods would get a stroke back with the birdie. Tiger had other ideas.
Standing over his putt 66 feet away from the hole, Tiger gently stroked the treacherous triple breaking downhill putt and watched as it snaked one way, came back another way, and finally broke again heading right toward the center of the hole, disappearing into the cup with a satisfying rattle for an eagle. The crowd went wild and Tiger fist-pumped his way to the next tee.
Unfortunately, the next hole saw Tiger give a stroke back to the field as his knee, now obviously hindering his swing, caused two wayward shots. The look on Woods face every time he prepared to shoot was not dissimilar to a man preparing to walk on hot coals. At that point, it was a question whether Woods would be able to make it through the last three holes.
After a par on the 16th, Tiger’s tee shot on 17 went wildly to the right. The pain in his knee almost caused Woods to collapse on the tee and he walked gingerly down the fairway. His second shot from 220 yards found the rough on the downslope of the green on the left side with a tricky downhill pitch to come.
By his own admission, Woods hit the ball too hard. It came out of the rough “hot” but took one bounce, hit the flag stick, and dove into the hole as if a magnet pulled it there. The improbable birdie had Woods smiling in embarrassment. He was fully aware that if the ball had not hit the flag, it would have been 10 feet past the cup.
That miracle shot gave him an aggregate score for the tournament of -1, just one shot off the lead. But his second shot from the 17th had proved costly. The knee was a constant source of discomfort due to the tremendous torque Woods initiated on his lower body when swinging.
So Woods adapted to the pain. On the 18th tee, he slightly altered his stance, opening his hips so that they now were at a 45 degree angle to the target rather than 90 degrees. This allowed his upper body to do most of the heavy lifting on his swing but also caused the ball to “cut” or veer hard to the right when struck. Woods compensated his aim perfectly, driving a ball 300 yards to the perfect spot on the fairway. His knee still bothered him but evidently, the pain was bearable if he swung the club this way.
His second shot was an absolute thing of beauty. Using the same technique, he powered a 5-wood 260 yards – a real moon shot that went over the water hazard and landed on the green about 40 feet from the cup leaving another treacherous, multi-breaking downhill putt for eagle.
Woods started his putt about 6 feet to the left of the hole, barely striking the ball because the garage floor-like greens at Torrey Pines make it impossible to hit the putt aggressively. The ball took nearly 8 seconds to curl right, veer left, and then straighten out, once again disappearing into the hole for an eagle which not only gave Tiger the lead in the tournament but gave sports fans everywhere a day to remember for all time.
Those days are special. Aaron’s 715th. Jack’s last Masters win at age 45. Mac’s last US Open run. Petty at Daytona. Gibbie’s homer on a gimpy leg. We remember these days because they featured athletes who inspired us and demonstrated an almost otherworldly talent, courage, and grace under the most trying of competitive circumstances. Tiger’s back nine at Torrey Pines is there now, safely put away in memory to be pulled out and admired again and again when we wish to be reminded of the meaning of greatness.
Thanks for the memories, Tiger…