We are now, officially, watching a new global athletic king, a prodigy turned phenomenon turned champion. We are entering a time when Tiger Woods likely will dominate golf, when he probably will become the most recognized, discussed, pursued, profiled athletic figure of his time. His lopsided victory at The Masters two years ago was a promise; his tense, dramatic, emotionally draining one-stroke triumph in the PGA Championship here Sunday is a make-good. This victory, giving him two major championships at the age of 23, will be the turbo-boost that propels and separates him from his peers.
Just think: If Woods is talented and resourceful and tough-minded enough to win two majors in his first three years on the professional tour, how difficult will it be to beat him now that he will be playing with a champion's arrogance and relatively little pressure for the immediate future?
If any further certification was needed, it came Sunday on the 17th green when he had to make an eight-foot putt for par and told himself, "Trust your stroke and bury it." The player so far known better for his incomparable length off the tee won his 14th worldwide tournament and his second major with the putter, the stick the few remaining cynics said would ultimately betray him in the clutch.
And now, everybody in golf is in trouble. The others will come into every tournament for a while wondering what in the world to do if Tiger's on his game. And he'll come in knowing that is exactly what they're thinking. See, there are guys who can always be in the hunt when something big is at stake. The athletic world is separated into guys who will do anything necessary to be there, and shrinking violets. Tiger wants in, even if it means getting caught from behind some times, or double-bogeying his lead down to a single stroke, or watching as a previously adoring crowd turns on him in favor of a new darling underdog.
Even when the pressure of the moment was highest Sunday, as he stood over that putt at No. 17 and at the tee box at No. 18, Woods told his caddie he was loving all of it. His face and body language said the ordeal was exhausting, but it's what is in an athlete's head that counts. What he believes is so much more important than what really is. "If you don't like that and have fun doing that," he said, "then I don't know what you're doing out there."
That didn't mean there weren't butterflies the size of bats fluttering inside his stomach, or that he didn't feel utter and supreme relief after sinking the par putt at 18 to win the championship. That doesn't mean he won't lose the big ones sometimes, just as Jack Nicklaus finished second in majors 19 times in his incomparable career. Woods, earlier this past week, ruffled some of the old boys' feathers by saying rather firmly that there weren't as many threats to win every week -- even the majors -- when Nicklaus played as there are now. And of course he was right on the money.
All you have to do is look at the depth of the field, which now includes Sergio Garcia, the 19-year-old Spaniard with game and flair to spare. You can't do any better than watching Woods and Garcia go at it over the final six holes at Medinah on Sunday. How fabulously bold and irreverent is Garcia to stare from the 13th green back across the water at Tiger, waiting to hit his tee shot at 13, to send a message? "I wanted him to know," Garcia said, "I was still there and he had to finish well to win."
You can do that when you have just as much talent and are just as daring as the other guy, and both of you know it. The final day of the century's final major couldn't have had a cooler co-star. How thrilling was the sequence that resulted from Garcia whacking his second shot on 16 away from that huge tree, 189 yards to the green. It was preposterous, of course. Nobody hits that shot. Nobody even tries. But the kid took a 6-iron, closed his eyes, bent the ball around the tree, then ran like a madman into the middle of the fairway to see where it landed. What a perfect advertisement for the ushering in of this new golf generation. You think Garcia isn't a big deal back home? The prime minister of Spain telephoned him with congratulations afterward.
Woods was clearly impressed.
"He has tremendous fight," Woods said of the young Spaniard. "You can see it in the way he walks around the golf course. . . . He's emotional, he's fiery, he's trying. . . . He wants to play well and he'll do it at any cost."
Of course, you have to have that to see it in others. Woods appreciated it in Garcia, but he wasn't daunted. When Tiger won at Augusta by an absurd 12 strokes, the Tiger-bashers (of which there are more than you'd expect at this point) said it was easy to win with such a huge lead, that he didn't have to deal with the pressure of a close pursuer, that they wanted to see him in a tight race, blah, blah, blah.
So he took care of that here Sunday. He lost his game at a critical juncture, from 12 through 16. Some guys never recover that late, but Tiger scrambled to get it back. Now after winning one major in a romp, he has won another by the width of a toothpick. If the true test of a champion is how resourceful he is when his game goes south, then Tiger passed that exam, too. "My focus was always there," he said of his struggle on the back nine Sunday. "Even though I lost four shots in two holes (up five strokes at 11, up just one by 13) and even though Sergio had momentum, I still had the lead. He was chasing me."
Also, it shouldn't be forgotten that Garcia was playing with house money. It's not his time yet. He's been a pro for all of three months. Nobody's been pestering him with questions about when he'll break through and win a major. (Not yet). He certainly didn't expect to be in final-day contention here. "It's the best week of my life," he said. "I never had so much fun playing golf."
You can feel that way when the pressure's on the other guy. And I don't think anybody in professional sports (okay, maybe the Atlanta Braves, but that pressure is spread around a clubhouse of 25 guys) has been playing the last two years with the pressure that's on Woods. He left school early, he signed huge endorsement deals before he'd ever won a tournament. He's risked ridicule by maintaining such a glossy public profile. He's been held up (and rightfully so) as the man who has changed, literally, the face of golf, and the thought process of millions of children who because of him now pay attention to golf.
No, the PGA didn't have the social significance of The Masters, but the pressure for Tiger Woods to be something special hangs around, and will indefinitely. At a time when hardly anybody in sports lives up to the hype anymore, you can count the people probably on one hand who have in recent years and most of those (Jordan, Elway, Gretzky) are leaving us. Woods has a lot of years and many championships to go before he reaches that level. But to that end, he's way out ahead of the pack, with a shiny new championship in his pocket and worlds to conquer.