Woods is the true master of suspense
LA JOLLA -- Contrary to popular opinion, Tiger Woods is not a golfer. He is a leading character in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.
Need a story line to captivate and mesmerize? Get Tiger.
Want the story to have drama, action and a mystical hero? Get Tiger.
Want a guarantee that the buildup won’t get to a peak and suddenly fall flat? Get Tiger and put a putter in his hands.
On the 72nd hole of the United States Open on Sunday, Tiger Woods did what he almost always does. He came through in the clutch. He gave us goose bumps. He made us wonder how anybody can succeed so often at such a high level in such an imperfect game.
We don’t applaud him now as much as we shake our heads in amazement. We think he is flesh and bones like we are, but we are becoming less and less certain.
The game he plays is not one of those dominated by God-given size or speed or strength. It ebbs and flows with wind and heat and fat and skinny grass. Tuned bodies are fine but only if they work in unison with tuned minds.
At 5:52 p.m., West Coast time, Woods stood over a 12-foot putt on No. 18 at Torrey Pines. It was a situation that would have rendered mere mortals jelly-legged and useless. So much was at stake -- money, prestige, golfing immortality. So much had happened, certainly enough to rationalize a miss and nod satisfaction for a good effort.
Good efforts don’t register with Woods. Only winning.
When he stood over the putt, he knew that making it would get him a spot in today’s 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate. He also knew that, if he missed, his courage for getting that close on a left knee still not healed from recent surgery would be universally applauded. More so, he knew that if he made the putt, he’d have to walk another 18 holes.
This is not just another star golfer in his prime. If he wins today, he will move to within four of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major tournament victories. At age 32.
This is a driven athlete with a flair for the dramatic and the instincts to perform and entertain while succeeding.
Still, there was no way he could top the theater of his Saturday round. That was a day when he made two eagles, including a long putt on the 18th hole that gave him the lead going into Sunday, and also chipped one in on the second bounce from an impossible side-hill lie in the rough.
Surely, the golf gods had given him enough. Surely, he couldn’t keep turning up four-leaf clovers on the fairways of Torrey Pines on Sunday.
Surely, you jest.
He started with yet another double bogey at No. 1, a hole that is neither difficult nor notable. It was his third in four days and he has yet to set foot on the No. 1 fairway other than as a passageway.
After that, he kind of slashed around the rest of the day, losing three strokes to par in four holes and slipping from first to third on the leader board. On particularly bad swings, he bent in pain as the knee screamed at him.
He made a bogey on a par five, No. 13, and he hates that. Then he disappointed the crowd around the tee at No. 14, a hole set up at par-four and 267 yards to tease the golfers into going for it. Woods, later saying his five-wood wasn’t quite enough and his three-wood was a little too much, laid up with a short iron.
Tiger made par and looked defeated and fatigued.
One group in front and one shot ahead was Mediate, who at 45 was having the time of his life. By now, the fans had adopted him, knew his story, knew that he had to qualify to get into the field and that, were he to win, he would be the oldest U.S. Open champion in history. It was a Rocco love fest and Rocco was returning the love of his newfound fans.
Mediate walked past the pond and onto the 18th green with waves to the huge crowd and an unwavering smile on his face. He had a 25-foot putt for birdie four, and when it slid past, he tapped it in for his one-under 283, waved goodbye to the crowd and did what most of the rest of the golf world did. He waited for Tiger.
Woods and playing partner Lee Westwood, the last group, were an entire hole back, barely visible from the 18th green as blue and red dots on the tee, 570 yards away.
The clock said 5:30. The huge scoreboard had just put up the numbers so that everybody knew that, from either in the last twosome, an eagle would win and a birdie would bring a Monday playoff.
The dots in the distance swung and soon Westwood was standing in sand to the right, Woods in sand to the left. Eagles were no longer an option, and birdie didn’t look all that likely for Woods, when he hit an ugly nine-iron out of the trip and still 120 yards away in the right rough.
But this was Tiger Woods. It was also high drama. So when his third shot landed 12 feet away, tantalizingly makable, there was a roar of both appreciation and awe.
Westwood went 25 feet past the pin, two putted and stood aside for the final act.
Woods, like an orchestra conductor, baton poised for the right moment, making sure everything was perfect, circled his ball, sizing up the angles from side, back and front. One minute passed. Two.
Woods crouched, measured his line with hands mimicking binoculars. There were probably 20,000 people within a quarter mile of the green, and you could hear a bird chirp.
Finally, he stood over the ball, made two practice swipes, locked his gaze over the ball and froze in concentration. The putter went back and through, the ball bumped and rolled.
And it stopped where all of us, deep in our hearts, knew it would.
Mediate was nearby, watching on TV.
“I knew he’d make it,” he said.
For golf, it was another best-seller. For Woods, merely another routine chapter.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.