By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 6, 2009
Tiger Woods gave the moment lip service yesterday, because technically, when he stood on the 12th green at Congressional Country Club's Blue Course, he could have lost the AT&T National, his very own golf tournament. He was tied for the lead. He had just hit a ball a hole earlier that neither he nor anyone else could find, leading to a bogey. He could have -- get this -- gagged it away.
"You can go either way," Woods said. "You can win the tournament, or you can lose the tournament."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever. Woods, put in such a position, doesn't lose tournaments. Hunter Mahan had posted a 62 -- out of nowhere, teeing off 80 minutes before Woods, matching the course record -- and as Woods said, "He went out there and put so much pressure on me."
But pressure, with Woods, is like an old, dear, embraceable friend. So it was that he hit a poor chip on the very accessible par-5 16th hole, leaving himself 20 feet short. And with the pressure on -- the opportunity to either win the tournament or lose it -- Woods, of course, won it. He rolled in that long birdie putt to go one up on Mahan, parred the last two holes, and thrust both hands in the air, a 67 on the day, a 13-under total of 267 for the week, a champion at his own event.
"It was a long week," Woods said, "but I got the 'W'."
Perhaps the most surprising development yesterday was that there was any doubt about that. The statistics are repeated often, but they remain amazing. Woods was tied with Anthony Kim when yesterday dawned, the 49th time in a PGA Tour event in which he had at least a share of the lead with 18 holes to play. His record in such events: 46-3.
"I have seen him dissect a golf course," Kim said. "He's done it to perfection in many tournaments."
This, though, was perhaps not a dissection. Woods did build a three-shot lead midway through his third round, when he stroked a 30-footer up a tier on the par-3 10th, getting him to 13 under. Kim, his playing partner, was battling a wayward driver and his own anxiety about playing with Woods in the final pairing. He seemed unable to make a move and provide a challenge. So Woods had only one remaining task: Conquer the brutal 11th.
That, though, had been the only thing he couldn't do all week. Here, as the tournament's host, he held a junior golf clinic, visited soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, held a board meeting for his foundation, participated in an opening ceremony, honored the military, and took his family to see the fireworks on the Mall -- a long checklist.
What he couldn't do: Make a 4 at the par-4 11th. In the first three rounds, he went bogey, bogey, double bogey. His tee shot yesterday: the worst of them all, into the snaking stream that guards the right side, a ball marshals never found.
"Bad shot," Woods said afterward. During the round, though, the words he ground through his clenched jaw amounted to something like, "&%#$@!!," repeated a few times. And there, the tournament could have swung. Mahan's brilliant round -- one that included nine birdies and matched Kim's 62 from Thursday as the Blue Course standard -- was coming to a close. Woods's ensuing bogey at 11 dropped him to 12 under. When Woods reached the 12th green, Mahan holed a 14-footer for birdie at the last. He was, somehow, 12 under as well.
Um, could Tiger actually lose?
"I birdied 10, have a three-shot lead, make bogey, then all of a sudden I'm tied?" Woods said. "What the hell happened here?"
Kim, too, could have applied pressure to a suddenly vulnerable Woods. But even when the 24-year-old -- who won this title last year, when Woods did not play because of injury -- overcame his jumpy swing, he could not make a putt. He made his last birdie at the ninth, and ended up, when the day concluded, saying, "I know I'll be knocking at the door again."
Woods, though, is clearly the guardian of that door, and by appearances, he decides when it swings open and when it slams shut. With Kim unable to make a true run -- he hung at 10 under throughout the back nine, making eight consecutive pars until a bogey at 18 -- Mahan's score cast a shadow on the field, on Woods. Woods paid that mark homage -- "I certainly didn't see that score out there," he said -- but there was a sense, even with Mahan, that Woods would be at least one better.
"He's pretty good," Mahan said. "He knows what he's doing. He knows how to play this game better than anybody. I thought he would get to probably 13 or 14 [under], actually."
All Mahan could do was watch on television from the clubhouse, where he was joined by Woods's wife, Elin, and the couple's two young children. They chatted a bit, and when Woods narrowly missed a breaking 12-footer for birdie at 14, Mahan even yelled, "Yes!" -- "in a joking manner," he said.
But with Woods unable to best Mahan's score by the time he got to the 16th green, Mahan headed to the range to get loose for a possible playoff. And there was more hope, because Woods's chip on the par 5 -- "It wasn't that hard," he said -- came up those 20 feet short.
So here was, perhaps more than any other moment, Woods at his best, the guy who wins tournaments others would lose. He stood over the putt, and a photographer distracted him, part of Woods's life. He stepped away, collected himself, and addressed the ball again. His thought: "Make sure I get it to the hole," he said.
That he did. Therefore, he won, the only reasonable outcome. There was, it would seem, drama. But with Woods, is the drama real?
"You just go about your business," he said, and that business is winning tournaments, not losing them, when his old buddy pressure is riding shotgun.