With Easy Lag, It's in the Bag
The air stood still, the heat hung like smoke and Gatorade boiled in the bottle. The only thing that showed any real movement in Saturday's stifling and motionless third round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills was Tiger Woods, and the steady chronometer of a swing with which he has been pounding all of golf for the past decade.
There was the occasional flurry from an underling, like those interesting calisthenics from Woody Austin as he herked and jerked into third place despite hitting just four fairways. But none of it amounted to more than hand-waving at Woods, as he moved still a little further away from the field with a three-stroke lead over Stephen Ames at 7-under-par 203. It might have been more, if not for yet another agonizing twister of a putt that just missed on the 18th, which left him twirling his putter like a baton in vexation.
Woods is the only player who matters in this PGA, and frankly, he's the only player who consistently matters in all of golf. To properly appreciate Woods's performance here, you better enjoy dictatorships because that's what his reign as the best player in the world has turned into. Woods has reached the point where he can apparently quell an entire field with an imperious look. He has never lost a major championship when leading after three rounds, and his career record when holding a lead entering the final round of any tournament is 39-3, a chokehold that no one here likely will break Sunday, when Woods will almost certainly carry off his 13th major title, to add to his runner-up finishes in the Masters and U.S. Open earlier this season.
All Woods had to do to extend his lead in this PGA was stand there and lash a series of steady iron shots. His strategy was to hit the center of the green and lag his putts on an afternoon when scoring was difficult and only five players finished 54 holes under par. His round of 1-under 69 was hardly dominant, but it was enough to stretch the lead over an array of opponents who showed the resistance of Farina. Woods's average score in the third round of majors is 69; the average score of his partners is 73.
"He has that influence on players," Ames said. "It's probably going to happen to me."
If Woods's legacy lacks one thing at this point, it's a sense of the dramatic. At his best, his game is lulling, a matter of swing planes straight as the creases in his clothes, and perfect parabolas. It's difficult to render what he does so well, precisely because it's so modulated and well regulated.
"You play what the golf course gives you," Woods said. "And one thing I've learned about playing over the years is not to go against that."
His genius comes without emotional torture; he's not especially revealing and demonstrative, like Sergio Garcia, or an emotional conduit for his audience, like Phil Mickelson. He's all about chilly excellence. Greatness is his most definable quality. It's a peculiar fact that Woods is actually more spectacular to watch when he's struggling a little, when he has to hit creative recovery shots, and is forced to give up a bit of control.
The par 70 of Southern Hills has at once brought out the very best and yet most unspectacular aspects of Woods's game. The doglegging layout is like a series of intricate locks. But Woods's genius here is that he has turned a difficult puzzle of a course into an assembly line. He hits 4-irons off the tee to the middle of the fairway, plays his approaches below the hole and then either makes the putt or doesn't.
His strategy has been, in his words, "just try to keep hitting fairways and put the ball in the center of the greens and lag-putt well."
Even his 63 in Friday's second round, which tied the record for low round in a major championship, was oddly unexciting. The score itself was probably the most interesting about it. His boldest shots of the day were a 35-foot putt to save par on the 12th hole, and his missed horseshoe putt on the 18th. There was no pin-seeking and bouncing it off the flagsticks, or driving 350-yard bombs.
The only drawback to any of this -- and it's not a criticism -- is that Woods's victories aren't always especially memorable. They might be memorable for his margin of victory, but not for his Arnold Palmer-like Sunday charges, with whooping galleries at his back. This is not his fault, but frankly the fault of his opponents, who have failed to challenge him.
There is a handful of players capable of making noise on a course, who can capture the attention of the golf world for an instant, or maybe even part of a weekend. But when they quiet down -- and they always do -- there remains the relentless Woods, poised, with his hands finishing high over his shoulder, then twirling the club and letting it slide back down, as he watches the ball descend to another green.