August 24, 2009

New Setting, Same Old Result

Tiger Woods helped out friend Notah Begay III by appearing at his event. Then he proceeded to clean up

A casual atmosphere at Turning Stone didn't suppress Tiger Woods' competitive instincts.

A casual atmosphere at Turning Stone didn't suppress Tiger Woods' competitive instincts.

VERONA, N.Y. -- Though just one round of golf in the middle of nowhere, upstate New York, the Notah Begay III Foundation Challenge was a PGA Tour season in microcosm. If each hole was its own tournament -- and under the skins format this isn't much of a stretch -- the result was Tiger Woods winning the most, the most money, and was right there even in the ones he didn't win. Everybody else fired at flags, suffered streaks good and bad, and simply hoped to get lucky and steal one now and again.

In this shrunken world "everybody else" was well represented by Camilo Villegas, Mike Weir, and host NB3 (as the man who's made four cuts all year is occasionally known). Enjoying the rare casualness afforded by the format, each one raked away his share of lengthy par putts, even par chips. But every single number on Tiger's scorecard was stroke-play legit. On a day where the purpose was to have a few laughs and raise money for the noble cause of helping Native American youth, the man who has been atop the world ranking for the better part of 12 years refused to take even a single "oh, just mark me down for a four" moment. In winning nine skins for $230,000 and the handmade potted trophy, Tiger hit 17 greens in regulation, missed one fairway, and made eight birdies against one bogey to shoot 65. Granted the fairways of Turning Stone Resort's Atunyote course were as ample as its casino's buffets, Tiger was pretty much on the center stripe of each one.

At 7,482 yards, it was a robotic display of ball-striking. Had the tournament directors decided to make it Tiger versus the best ball of the trio in the interest of heightened drama, the match would've ended all square.

In addition to the fact Tiger had his A-game, the event was one of the best chances to witness Woods in action for another reason: the event's attendance was capped at 3,000. (The event raised money by a different tactic, selling only high-end resort ticket packages for $330 and up.) Three thousand might sound like a lot for a foursome, but in actuality, this spread so that the gallery was rarely deeper than three or four people at any given spot. Plus, any self-possessed fan that waited just one hole ahead was guaranteed a primo glimpse. Even better, though not necessarily for the players' concentration, was a miscommunication regarding which types of passes were allowed inside the ropes. By the 15th hole, over a hundred fans and mixed media were moving like a herd just paces behind the players. At the 16th tee, there came an announcement for the unwanted to step out, but by then it was too late for security to really materialize an effort.

The only negative to draw against Tiger would be that the day represented in microcosm, specifically, the 2009 PGA Tour season -- in that he slipped in the "majors." These proved to be the 14th hole (six skins worth $180,000 taken by Camilo) and the grand finale 18th hole (one skin worth $70,000 taken by NB3). Camilo's bundle actually propelled him temporarily into the lead, and it was at this precise moment the event's atmosphere switched from friendly to heated, like a game of ping-pong between brothers. Tiger's expression soured, and he rattled off three consecutive birdies on the ensuing holes, worth $50,000 each, to reclaim top position.

In footnote, Weirsy, as affectionately addressed by Tiger throughout the day, got shut out. Though the Canadian played fairly steadily, his 25-footers for birdie just weren't dropping.

The event raised $750,000 for Notah's foundation, the mission of which is to reduce the incidence of obesity in Native American youth. Matt Ramirez, the teenage youth chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, who was invited from California to serve as a standard-bearer for the day, said, "Diabetes is killing a lot of us. The purpose is to create more athletic programs, soccer, golf, whatever, so that kids can be active."

That there existed a higher purpose to the day than just golf was echoed in Tiger's victory speech. "I'm so proud of Notah as a friend," said Tiger of his former Stanford teammate. "We understand that he's trying to create awareness about diabetes, obesity, and we look forward to coming back next year."

What Tiger would not elaborate on, however, was the upcoming FedEx Cup. Could a $10 million fall bonus ease the pain of losing the final round lead at the PGA Championship? Would it make the long wait until next year's Masters that much easier? In cosmic retrospection, did he feel he had played Yin to Y.E.'s Yang? These questions, and other ones like them, remained unanswered as Tiger was whisked away a mere shoe-change's time after the round.

So at the conclusion of this not-quite-a-real victory, the adorably makeshift interview tent, replete with stage, microphones, cameras and rows of white folding chairs, was mostly for naught. There was no winner around to be interviewed. Maybe we'll catch him at The Barclays.