THE BRITISH OPEN
Monday, July 24, 2006
HOYLAKE, England, July 23 -- Tiger Woods was a man with a plan when he began his first round in the 135th British Open on Thursday at Royal Liverpool.
After his first practice session eight days ago on a baked-brown, firm and fast golf course, he knew that typical American style grip-it-and-rip-it golf was not going to get it done on a venue that demanded a more cerebral, strategic approach.
For all but one tee shot over the last four days, Woods never removed that tiger-puppet head cover on his driver, preferring instead to sting the ball down the fairway off the tee with a low trajectory 2-iron that by now ought to have a dent in the middle of the clubface, so often was it employed this week. It was championship golf by slide rule, T-square and calculator, and by the end of this breezy day off the Irish Sea, the greatest player in the world had meticulously plotted his way to the 11th major title of his career.
With a 5-under-par 67, the lowest score of the day, and a 72-hole total of 18-under 270, Woods captured his third Claret Jug and second in a row by two shots over Chris DiMarco, the only man in the field able to mount any sort of significant challenge to the world's most formidable player.
Aided by a miracle 60-foot par-saving putt at the 14th and four back-nine birdies, DiMarco had 68 -- 272 and finished second.
"When somebody gets close to him, he's got an uncanny ability to just turn it up another level," said DiMarco, now No. 6 on the Ryder Cup points list and virtually ensured a spot on the U.S. team. "It's hard to catch him. I had a lot on the line today. I was trying to win, obviously. I'm trying to get major points for the Ryder Cup. I feel like I've finally gotten over my [rib] injury and over the hump."
Said Woods: "I don't intend to do it on purpose, that's not one of those things where I can just turn on the switch. I believe that you turn the switch on the first hole and you have it on the entire time. For some reason, I've seemed to pull things off at the end. I feel comfortable being there. I've had enough success that I feel comfortable being in that situation."
Woods's fourth victory worldwide this year and third on the PGA Tour earned $1.33 million and pushed him to the top of the money list. More significantly, a month after missing the first major cut of his pro career at the U.S. Open, he became the first player to win this event back-to-back since Tom Watson in 1982-83. He also tied Walter Hagen, who won a Hoylake British Open himself on these same storied links in 1924, for second place on the all-time list of major winners. At age 30, he's now seven away from matching the record 18 won by Jack Nicklaus.
Starting with a one-shot lead over three formidable players, with 14 men within five shots of his lead, Woods could see on scoreboards that one by one virtually all of them were not up to the task of challenging the No. 1 player in the world. That was especially true of his Sunday partner Sergio Garcia. The 26-year-old Spaniard, attired in canary yellow head to toe, missed short par putts on Nos. 2 and 3 and was out of contention after nine holes, though he did rally on the inward nine to tie for fifth at 73 -- 277.
DiMarco, who bogeyed his first hole, was the only man to threaten Woods's lead on the final nine holes, pushing to within a shot when he made a 20-foot putt for birdie at 16. But seconds later, not knowing what DiMarco had done up ahead, Woods made his own 10-foot birdie attempt at the 15th hole to retain that two-shot margin, and padded it to three when, for the fourth straight day, he birdied the 554-yard 16th for his third birdie in a row. When DiMarco missed his 20-footer for birdie at the 17th, Woods essentially was home free.
Woods's triumph also marked the first time he couldn't hug his beloved "Pops" near the 18th green or at least phone home after a major victory. His father, Earl, died on May 3 after a long battle with prostate cancer. Woods broke down and sobbed uncontrollably twice after the round, once on the 18th green on the shoulder of his caddie, Steve Williams, and minutes later in the arms of his wife, Elin, on his way to sign his scorecard.
"I wish he could have watched this," Woods said. "It would have brought a smile to his face."
Woods never was out of the lead after the second round on Friday. On Sunday, three-time major winner Ernie Els did tie him for the early fourth-round lead when the South African made a five-foot birdie putt a hole ahead of Woods at the 528-yard No. 5.
But Els, just now recovered from knee surgery last summer, said he let his chances slip away in the middle of his round when he failed to convert several decent birdie opportunities, made two sloppy bogeys and eventually posted 71. He settled for third place at 13-under 275 and said: "I have to be satisfied with that. I haven't been top 10 in a major for a while.
"Competing against a guy like Tiger for our generation of players is tough. He has really found a way to win majors. He had a game plan and he stuck to it. At times I didn't think it was the right plan because he's so long off the tee he could have hit short irons into some of the holes. But he knows how to win these things and it's going to be tough to beat him now."
He hit more fairways this week than anyone in the field -- 13 of 14 in the final round and 48 out of 56 for the week. He only missed six greens in regulation over his final two rounds, and his average driving distance off the tee on Hoylake's fiery fairways was more than respectable at 290 yards for the week, even with a 2-iron.
"People were saying he couldn't hit his driver," said Woods's coach, Hank Haney. "But at the Western [two weeks ago], he had one of his best driving weeks of the year. When we started practicing here, the ball was going forever. How are you going to make it stop? After the second hole of his first practice round, he figured he'd be playing irons off the tees. It feels good to see him come through and have the ball-striking rounds he had. And I don't think you've seen the best of him yet."