Veteran Tiger Keeps Youthful Kim At Bay to Win AT& T National

Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the sixth green, where he scored his first birdie of the day and began pulling away from playing partner Anthony Kim.
Tiger Woods lines up a putt on the sixth green, where he scored his first birdie of the day and began pulling away from playing partner Anthony Kim. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Boswell
Monday, July 6, 2009

At the first hole at Congressional Country Club yesterday, Anthony Kim struck his iron shot a foot from the hole, tapped in for birdie and took the lead from Tiger Woods in his own tournament. No respect. In your face, boyhood hero or not.

By the time the pair, playing head-to-head in the final group, walked off the fourth green, the throngs in a crowd of 43,936 that packed the gallery ropes six-deep were in a frenzy. Most screamed "Tiger, Tiger," as he passed, as if that one word ought to be enough. Others yelled, "Come on, A.K., you can take him down."

There have been quieter middleweight championship fights. But then Tiger against A.K. felt like a heavyweight fight. For about an hour.

Then, gradually, everything changed, as it has for so many potential challengers to Woods when they finally meet him in the flesh. Or, rather, when they meet the utterly impersonal almost mythological figure, always in black-and-red on Sunday, who barely seems to know they are there, who seldom glances at their swing and who says the least words possible. Only on the course, where the Woods grin and jock jokes suddenly stop, do you meet the real Tiger, who thinks you are nobody, nothing, an interloper in his table-for-one rubber room. If you respect him or, worse, hold him a hero, the burden becomes yours.

Then, after he was won, he changes again. The 10-mile gaze, the trance that he calls "going into my own little world," disappears. His face refocuses at close range. The guy you liked so much on the practice green, when he told you he'd just text-messaged his buddy Roger Federer, right after Wimbledon, to say, "Great job. Now it's my turn," that fellow is suddenly back, smiling at you. And you're left to figure out how to cope with two Tigers -- the killer and the Tour semi-regular guy.

As Woods and Kim walked up the 18th hole, with Woods's ball safely on the final green where his 67 would leave him at 13 under par, with a one-shot win over Hunter Mahan and Kim left four shots back in third place, the 33-year-old host turned to the 24-year-old who is often seen as his most likely challenger in the future.

"I enjoyed it. There will be many more to come," Woods said to Kim, with whom he had never played, not even in practice -- an oddity at the top levels of golf. "Just keep working hard and we'll do this for many more years."

Kim seemed stunned a bit by the whole first encounter with Woods. First came the Kim pleasantries: "I had a lot of fun. It was a good learning experience. I'll be knocking on the door again. It's only a matter of time." Then the frost began to arrive. As defending AT&T National champion, would he be presenting Woods with the prize? Kim just glared, then, a minute later, made a remark about how he'd never even played a practice round with Woods but, "I don't really care what he's doing. It's about my game."

Funny, Kim looked at Woods all day. Tiger seldom returned the compliment. "I know I can play at the highest level now," Kim said. "My swing still isn't comfortable, but I need better decision making, too. I learned that [when you play Tiger], if you have a birdie putt, you better make it."

Woods may truly believe that, with time, Kim will match his huge talent with a comparable sense of course management. But, if Tiger has anything to do with it, he'll delay that day. Or, perhaps, squelch it in the crib. Tiger studies the great rivalries of the past. He knows their every detail. And he doesn't want to have one. With anybody.

Long after his win, Woods was swapping stories about the upcoming British Open at Turnberry and Tiger recalled the historic two-day head-to-head duel in which Tom Watson (65-65 on the last 36 holes) beat Jack Nicklaus (65-66) by a shot. "What I loved," said Woods, who was barely alive in '77, but studies every scrap of golf tape, "was the way Jack made birdie out of a bush at the 18th hole just so Tom would have to make that last little putt to beat him."

Woods knows all about Nicklaus and Watson. And that's why, though few my guess, it is so important to him that, whenever a possible Watson appears, that he squash him fast. And, for Woods, there has never been a Watson like Kim. When Nicklaus was 33, Watson was 24 and emerging fast, just the same ages as Tiger and Kim. At first, Watson was thought a choker, especially after he blew the 54-hole lead at the '74 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Back then, nobody looked Jack in the eye, wanted a piece of him or had the requisite cockiness to get under his skin. Then, in '75, at age 25, Watson broke through at the British Open. And the world was never quite the same for Jack.

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