Tiger Keeps Youth at Bay

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.

Watson was, in some golf sense, less than half as good as Jack -- eight major titles to Nicklaus's 18. But Watson didn't care. He just loved to compete, to get his share of the prizes and to thwart Jack as often as he could. And so Watson won a British Open, a U.S. Open and a Masters with Nicklaus alone in second place -- three majors lost. And Watson won another Masters that, if he hadn't existed, would have ended in a Nicklaus-Johnny Miller playoff.

That's just what Tiger doesn't want. And, in this duel he hopes will never develop, he delivered the first blow yesterday. While Kim played driver all day -- partly to out-hit Tiger, but mostly because Kim is a young, half-crazed flag-hunting prodigy -- Woods was content frequently to hit 3-wood or even 5-wood off the tee. By the fifth and sixth holes, Woods's superior course management and self-control began to take a toll. He made par and birdie while Kim, after two wild hooks off the tee, made bogey to fall into a tie, then needed a long par-saving putt just to stay one shot behind Woods.

Once Woods gets you down, protect your neck. At the 145-yard par-three 7th hole, Woods dropped his short-iron shot down the stack to five feet. Kim gamely answered, carving a fade just over the front trap to six feet. But he missed, flipped his putter in disgust like a kid, then missed it when he tried to catch it. Can you say, "Almost over"?

Woods sank his putt for a three-shot lead on Kim. After that, Kim was a figure on the fringes while Woods focused on Mahan, far ahead, who had shot a 62 to post 12 under.

What happened was that, where a 24-year-old might have emotions, Woods just shrugged. "That's just the way it goes," he said. With Kim pretty much neutralized, Woods needed to finish with a bunch of pars and a birdie at the par-five 16th. So, he did. Complete with a 20-foot putt for the decisive stroke, just when he really needed it.

If Kim fades back into the tour pack, this day will make a turning point for the worse in his assault on Mt. Woods. More likely, he will recover. And we may revisit days like this, even some with endings of a different sort.

Until then, we are left with an evening on which Woods, "the greedy host," anointed himself the champion of his own party.

"I remember when I first won Byron [Nelson's] tournament. To have him shake your hand, that's something I'll always remember. Same thing with Arnold and Jack," Woods said. "It was great shaking my hand today. I thoroughly enjoyed that."

It sure beats having to shake somebody else's hand, a fate Woods hates and hopes to delay for years.

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