February 23, 2008

A Modern Metaphor

Tiger started out the Match Play Championship like it was the exhibition season and ended it as if he had just pitched a perfect game in the World Series

MARANA, Ariz. -- Tiger Woods turned the WGC-Accenture Match Play into a modern metaphor for golf. It was poor Stewart Cink who bore the brunt in the 36-hole final, getting roasted 8 and 7 at The Gallery at Dove Mountain, but this is a fate Cink shares with every other living player at the moment. None of them is much more than set decoration. Cink might has well have been just another Saguaro cactus, because Woods is dormie with destiny.

He Who Is Without Peer is one victory shy of Ben Hogan on the all-time list. He has won six straight events internationally, dating to last year's BMW Championship, and is 3-0 in '08 with no end in sight. Where is Woods likely to slow down? His next event will be the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Let's see, he once won that one four straight times. Then, it's the WGC-CA at The Blue Monster at Doral. He's won there six times. Oh, and he's the defender. Next is the Masters. He's done reasonably well at Augusta National, hasn't he? After that is the Wachovia Championship at Quail Hollow Club. Oh, right, he's the defending champion there, too.

So, how about The Players? Maybe Pete Dye's Stadium Course can throw up a roadblock. Of course, Woods did win there in '01 and there was that U.S. Amateur title, too. Then comes Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament. He hasn't won at Muirfield Village in a while, not since that time he won three straight. After that comes the U.S. Open, back at Torrey Pines, where he's won four consecutive tour events. Oh, my. Maybe Woods can put the brakes on himself in his own tournament at Congressional CC. He hasn't won that one--yet.

"I'm a little disappointed I didn't throw more at Tiger," Cink said after the record-setting loss. Even when there was an opening, he couldn't capitalize. On two of the occasions Woods bogeyed, Cink did, too. For all intents and purposes, the final was over after eight holes. In his semifinal match against Justin Leonard, Cink was seven under par through eight holes and 4 up. Against Woods he played the same holes even par and was 4 down. Woods finished him off in the afternoon with birdies on five of the match's last six holes (throwing Cink a bone when he lipped out for eagle, losing the 10th) to post the largest margin of victory ever in the WGC event. Altogether, Woods birdied 14 of the 29 holes he played Sunday.

"I spent this whole week demoralizing my opponents because I was playing really well and they just didn't have a chance," said Cink. "Today I was the one who felt demoralized. So, I guess maybe I deserved it."

Woods began the week like it was spring training, hitting his first tee ball deep to right field to lose the hole to J.B. Holmes. Then, just a few hours before the total eclipse of the moon, golf's only true star passed the shadow of his amateur career across Holmes when he came back from 3 down with five to play and finished birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle-par to win 1 up.

After a comfortable second round win, Woods went to 20 holes against Aaron Baddeley and had to birdie more than half the holes (11) to get through. As the winning putt found the cup, Woods simultaneously removed his cap but there was none of the rousing emotion he showed against Holmes two days before. Baddeley had missed the opportunity to put Woods away on back-to-back holes, hitting good putts that didn't happen to drop. The one thing the best player in the world despises more than anything is when someone else is in control of his fate. Rather than fist-pumping enthusiasm, Woods looked like a kid who just got beaten up for his lunch money. After that, he took theirs.

At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, The Gallery at Dove Mountain shares certain similarities with The Old Course at St. Andrews, minus the double greens and the tweed. Cosmetically, it's straight out and straight back but strategically it has plenty of room to drive the ball, enormous putting surfaces, reachable par 5s and a couple of drivable par 4s that render lots of lag putts and up and downs over tightly mowed shoulders. While the bunkers aren't nearly as fearsome as The Old Course, the desert is. As Colin Montgomerie said about Woods and St. Andrews, it was, "a course that was built for him 200 years before he was born." Or, in the case of The Gallery, after he'd already won eight majors. Woods will have to do without it next year when the match play event will move to a new Jack Nicklaus design, The Tortolita Course, which supposedly will be more spectator-friendly.

This was Woods' 15th WGC title. Only one other player, Darren Clarke, has more than one. "They're exactly what they were meant to be," said Woods. "That's putting the best up against each other more often than just the four majors and The Players. I think that's why we, as players and competitors, love them, love the idea that we can go head-to-head more often."

For now, perhaps, the lure of the best against the best seems sufficient. There is, however, a palpable frustration among some international players that the World Golf Championships have devolved into just more American ethnocentrism. The very real possibility of crossing seven or eight time zones to play 14 or 15 holes at a time of the season when players' games are just beginning to round into shape may, one day, seem less appealing. After all, it wasn't so long ago that the notion of skipping a tournament with guaranteed money, a select field and a Hawaiian setting seemed unthinkable, too.

"All I know is that I just love playing against the best players in the world," said Woods. One of these days, they may give him a game, too.