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But What If The Ball Had Missed The Stick?

Continued (page 2 of 2)

By contrast, Woods' pre-tournament presser was much more congenial, the world No. 1 noticeably more relaxed now that the burden of questions about when he'd win another major had lifted. A T-32 at Merion wasn't the follow-up to his Masters win he hoped, but he was rather self-assured (read: cocky) about his prospects at Muirfield given the baked-out conditions. "It's feels a lot like Hoylake," Woods said.

As it turned out Woods needed his driver slightly more often than in 2006 -- three times rather than once. But once again he earned the title of champion golfer of the year with rounds of 69-69-70-71.

Standing beside Woods when the R&A's Peter Dawson handed him the claret jug was Phil Mickelson, who had won the previous week at the Scottish Open and thought he had finally found the trick to playing links golf. Despite a magnificent final-round 66, he fell two shy of Tiger. "It might have been the best round that nobody will remember but me," Lefty said. "On the bright side, at least I was runner-up at a different Open."

tiger woods illustration

Although Inbee Park already had won three majors on the year, her pursuit of the women's Grand Slam was quickly overshadowed by Woods' quest for his third in 2013. As it turned out, Woods was never a threat at the PGA Championship, finishing T-40. Yet he had a hand in determining the winner nonetheless. Three days before play started at Oak Hill, he was chatting with Jim Furyk on the practice green and offered him -- to the amusement of some of his PGA Tour brethren -- a putting tip. "A little adjustment in my stance," Furyk revealed. "Don't worry, I know it really came from Stricker."

During Oak Hill's final round Dufner looked like he would join Mahan in becoming a first-time major champion as he had a masterful day tee to green en route to a Sunday 68. But Furyk avenged his 2012 Ryder Cup showing by making clutch birdie putts on the 12th and 14th holes, then spectacularly holed a 35-foot downhill, can-you-believe-that, par-saving putt on the 18th to win by a stroke after Dufner bogeyed the last two holes.

(Amusingly, Dufner stole some of Furyk's spotlight. Waiting for the trophy ceremony, the runner-up along with his wife, Amanda, plopped themselves on the ground beside a row of spectators. Photographers quickly snapped the couple in the familiar pose, the image again going viral and reviving the "Dufnering" craze.)

Winning the PGA secured Furyk a spot on the Presidents Cup team, bumping Zach Johnson from the top 10 in the points standings into the 11th spot. The result created agita for Fred Couples regarding his U.S. captain's picks. He ultimately went off the standings, picking Johnson and Webb Simpson (No. 12), with rookie sensation Jordan Spieth becoming the odd man out. "I know Jordan has had an amazing season," Couples explained. "He'll have plenty of these in his future."

Johnson justified the pick by winning that week at the BMW Championship, while Furyk's confident putting helped him earn four points as the Americans routed the Internationals.

Woods' year was not without controversy. At the BMW he was involved in his own rules imbroglio during the second round. Woods was adamant his ball hadn't moved behind the first green when he touched a stick nearby, but rules officials felt a video showed otherwise and gave him a two-stroke penalty for not replacing the ball.

jim furyk illustration

The next morning Woods did something those closest to him later confided might not have happened had the pressure of his major victory drought lingered. "After watching it again, I realized I was wrong," Woods told the press. "I didn't think it moved in real time, but after seeing it, well, obviously it did."

It didn't put a damper on a year that began while playing a practice round with then World No. 1 Rory McIlroy in Abu Dhabi. "He'll bounce back. Rory's just got to stick to his process," Woods said in a Golf Channel interview with Brandel Chamblee prior to hosting the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.

During the Woods/Chamblee 15-minute sit-down, their relationship having thawed after Woods' BMW mea culpa, the now 16-time major winner took stock of what the difference was in 2013.

"The last few years there has been an anxiousness on my part, on the media's part, on everyone's, to analyze whether I could return to the way I played in the 2000s," Woods said. "At some point, though, I realized it didn't really matter. What was important was that I was still capable of great golf. When I finally stopped letting comparisons get in the way, it freed everything up."

Chamblee closed by asking Woods to recall the Friday afternoon in April, the second round of the Masters and the great approach shot at the 15th. "Have you ever wondered," Chamblee went on, "how different a year it might have turned out if you hit that flagstick like you feared? What if your ball did go in the water? Then what?"

The silence lasted four seconds before Woods smiled and said, "I can't even imagine."

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