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The first tee at Southern Hills Country Club is one of the most majestic in golf, perched high above a serpentine fairway with the Tulsa skyline looming far beyond. On Sunday, Tiger Woods arrived on the tee shortly before 2 p.m. CDT to begin his final round at the 89th PGA Championship. The temperature was into triple digits, but Woods looked utterly at ease. The glistening Wanamaker trophy, which Woods had already claimed three times, was on a pedestal at the back of the tee box, but he didn't even give it a glance. As Woods settled over his ball, everything stopped--the swarms of fans, the security guards with their mirrored sunglasses, the cameramen with their itchy trigger fingers. Woods's presence was as palpable as the humidity.
He did not take a practice swing, and why should he? Woods had been preparing for this moment all his life. His swing has never looked more rhythmic or graceful than it did last week, but the underpinnings of his action remain athleticism and strength. He lashed at his ball and propelled it through the dead air with an audible sizzle. Woods held his follow-through just a beat longer than usual, watching his ball trace its towering arc down the fairway.
They might as well have bronzed him on the spot.
Woods is making history in real time, and Sunday at Southern Hills was the latest opportunity to marvel at his mastery. The outcome was never really in doubt, but it was still impossible to look away. It is riveting to watch the greatest there's ever been at the height of his powers. In a sports world awash in scandal and disillusionment, Woods's unrelenting brilliance is one of the few things we can count on.
After that first, perfect tee shot Woods toured the rest of the course in 68 more economical strokes, on his way to a two-shot victory. With Woods the wins are impressive not only for the aesthetics but also for their context. The long history of major championship golf can now be summarized in three words: Jones, Nicklaus, Woods. With his 13th Grand Slam victory Woods tied the career total of the great Bobby Jones and moved that much closer to Jack Nicklaus's epic record of 18. The thread connecting them stretches back 84 years, to Jones's triumph at the 1923 U.S. Open. Woods is acutely aware of golf history and his effect on it. Afterward he said, "Anytime you're in conversations with Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen"-- Nicklaus and Hagen each won a record five PGAs--"it makes you understand that you've had a nice run in your career. If you would have asked me if, 12 years into my career, would I have had this many wins and this many majors, there's no way."
To get his latest W, Woods had to survive an unforgiving course that yielded only five totals under par and scorching sunshine that sent more than 200 fans into the care of medics. For every other player in the field it wasn't the heat but the humility. As Arron Oberholser said last Saturday, "He knows he's going to win. The scary thing is that maybe he knows you know he's going to win."
Why is Woods so tough to beat? It's simple, really: He's the most gifted athlete on Tour, the most mentally tough and one of the hardest workers. That's been the case more or less since the day he turned pro in 1996. But now, at 31, he has turned himself into the game's cagiest strategist too.
When Woods was in college at Stanford, he began an enduring friendship with Bill Walsh, who was coaching the Cardinal football team at the time. Last Friday a public memorial was held in San Francisco for Walsh, who died on July 30 of leukemia. At the ceremony a telegram from Woods describing Walsh as almost a second father to him during his freshman year was read to the 8,000 fans, former players and Walsh acolytes in attendance. At Southern Hills that day, 1,700 miles away, Woods paid tribute to the old coach with a virtuoso performance of golf's version of the West Coast offense, as he picked apart the course's defenses one little swing at a time.
When it was over, Woods had tied the lowest score at a major championship with a 63, though he called it a 621?2 after spinning out his 15-footer on the final hole. For the round, Woods made well more than 100 feet of putts--including a momentum-building 35-footer to save par after landing in a bunker on number�12--and he chipped in at the 14th, but this 63 was a monument to decision-making and restraint. Woods birdied one par-3, the 14th, and this is what he hit off the tee to set up the seven other birdies: a�two-iron, a three-iron, two four-irons, a five-iron, a three-wood and a driver.
Said Oberholser, who tied for fourth, seven strokes back, "He just plods along with such horrifying precision."