August 10, 2009

Victory Rush

Tiger Woods wins his seventh WGC-Bridgestone Invitational but says an official's call played an unfortunate role

Woods readies to apply his 8-iron from 178 yards on the decisive 16th hole. His birdie from inside one foot was part of a four-shot swing.

Woods readies to apply his 8-iron from 178 yards on the decisive 16th hole. His birdie from inside one foot was part of a four-shot swing.

How can something that happens so often still be called amazing? Tiger Woods won his seventh WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a final-round 65 to beat Padraig

Harrington and Robert Allenby by four shots. For normal golfers seven victories is a nice life. But seven while using the same locker is patently absurd. Generally, Woods at Firestone CC

would portend such a foregone conclusion, you would almost consider running the tape backward for dramatic effect. That is, start with Tiger holding the trophy, then see how he got there, maybe what new shirts he wore earlier in the tournament and whose throats he stepped on during the preambles to wind up at 12-under-par 268.

But this year's edition—not to steal from the previous week's atmosphere pervading his Buick Open conquest—was a real gas, rife with subplots, reversals and even controversy. Historians probably will decide that Woods' 70th career triumph became fact when he delivered a downwind 178-yard 8-iron that floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee to the 16th, the ball retreating to within eight inches of the cup for a cinch birdie. "One of his all-time best, considering the circumstances," marveled caddie Steve Williams. "On a green I couldn't hold with a lob wedge," concurred Harrington, who was Woods' sidekick in the lead twosome that had distanced itself from the field on a sultry, windy afternoon.

Exactly what degree of separation they achieved, well, that's what created a palpable sense of anxiety. At the fateful 16th, Woods and Harrington were warned that they were on the clock—not a first for groups containing Harrington during the tournament, by the way. He's a gentleman and a scholar, but he is not a rabbit. "By the time they reached the tee, they were 17 minutes over, some four minutes worse than they had been earlier," said John Paramor, the European Tour's chief referee, working the tournament because of its WGC status. Harrington, who led Woods by a stroke as they arrived on the lengthy par 5, then embarked on a gruesome meltdown that did not conclude until he made a three-footer for triple-bogey 8.

"A good battle between us … too bad it got ruined," howled Woods, who was hot during the homestretch and still angry on Harrington's behalf an hour after the ceremony. "That guy [Paramor] cost Paddy a golf tournament."

Harrington tried to be somewhat diplomatic, noting that rules are rules, but he did admit feeling hurried on his tee ball that landed on the hardpan right; his second, a badly pulled 5-iron escape that caught the upslope of a fairway bunker; and his third that bounded over the green into grumpy rough. Then it got really ugly. Harrington's attempted flop shot had a sick mind of its own, rocketing well beyond the putting surface into a pond that the Irishman then circled back around for another approach from about 110 yards, playing 6.

"It was an awkward situation, being out of position," said Harrington, who has not won since the 2008 PGA Championship but appeared to be in fine form with his swing changes while posting rounds of 64-69-67, then hanging in there Sunday as Woods turned a three-stroke deficit after 54 holes into a two-stroke advantage after 63 with a front-nine 30. Woods accrued consecutive bogeys at Nos. 13 and 14, then knocked his tee ball into the left rough at the 16th. Still, he contended that Harrington would have been a factor and incurred no worse than bogey there without being told to step it up, or else.

"And even with all that took place on that hole," Woods went on, "Padraig taking a drop on the other side of the lake, after having to hit that flop shot so quickly, when we got to the No. 17 tee, the guys ahead were just walking off the 18th tee. And when did we finish? Three minutes after we're supposed to go off TV?"

John Paramor

Slugger White, a PGA Tour rules official also on site, disagreed with Woods' version of who was where when. But understand that Tiger unabashedly admires the demeanor and work ethic of Harrington, who wound up with 72 to tie Allenby (66). Though disappointed, Harrington said he would stage his PGA Championship defense with positive feelings about sharpening a tool box that snagged three majors. "I've been trying to change my swing for the last three years," he said, "but it became a priority over the last eight months. If somebody told me I had to go to a desert island for the next two years and I would improve my game, the hard part would be telling my wife. That's what I would do. That's always been my makeup."

When Woods sank a seven-footer at No. 18 Saturday for his first 65 of the weekend, he gained a share of the lead. But it wasn't enough to shake Harrington, who only a minute or so later canned a 29-footer at No. 12 for birdie to go ahead by one. The Irishman birdied Nos. 13 and 15, then bogeyed the par-5 16th, only to bounce back with birdie at No. 17. After finishing with 67, Harrington glanced at the leader board, unaware of the pecking order. He was mildly surprised to see Woods lurking in second, thinking that he might play again Sunday beside Tim Clark in the final group. Clark, however, surrendered his lead after eight holes in no uncertain terms. He had zero birdies on the back nine and drifted off with 73 following a penalty he called on himself at No. 16, where he forgot to return his ball to its original position on the green after moving it out of Harrington's path. "There isn't much you can do about a situation like that," said Clark, who did the right thing.

Padraig Harrington

Of Sunday's pairing with You Know Who, Harrington was brutally honest in admitting an "intimidation factor there." But Harrington does not frighten easily. He made nine pars while Woods was going through his showtime routine on the outward half Sunday, as if to send a message that his 20th come-from-behind victory after a 54-hole deficit might be anticlimactic. In your basic 60-minute drill, Woods wiped out Harrington's lead and seized his own with a 27-footer for birdie at No. 5. Tiger made a couple of mistakes coming home, but that uncanny 8-iron at No. 16, where he just might have seen John Paramor's face on the ball, is why Stewart Cink (see page 38) mentioned in a pre-tournament press conference that his British Open triumph in the Woods era was so special: "Tiger is the best that's ever played."

Not to be forgotten, No. 2 Phil Mickelson returned from a long hiatus of six weeks, anxious to test his skills after a near-miss at the U.S. Open. Mickelson's schedule (see page 36) is predicated on the ongoing fights wife Amy and mother Mary are waging against breast cancer, but he said, "We're in a much better place now than we were," and expressed encouragement about early detection and "some wonderful care … it's just been a great medical experience." Mickelson also was effusive in his praise of fellow golfers and the communal spirit of the tour when one of its own encounters difficulty or tragedy. He cited Chris Smith, Ken Green and Jonathan Byrd.

"It seems like the players really get behind and emotionally support guys when they're going through things," said Mickelson, who added that the separation from competition reawakened "how much I love playing the game of golf. It's made me re-look at some of my longer-term expectations as far as I when would cut back, at what age, all that stuff."

Mickelson, exhibiting rust, bemoaned throwing away a number of strokes over four days. He finished T-58 at seven-over 287. Otherwise, the left-hander appeared to be his usual animated and active self, on and off the course. A year ago, he organized a trip to watch the Akron Aeros, a Cleveland Indians farm club in the Eastern League. Mickelson's swing coach, Butch Harmon, was enjoying the hospitality when a fellow in the neighboring box leaned over and asked whether Harmon was indeed the "world-famous swing coach, Bruce Fleisher." Harmon instinctively turned around to determine whether anybody was listening. When he discovered that Mickelson and caddie Jim Mackay heard all about it, Butch knew he was doomed to torment with no statute of limitations. Thus, last Thursday night Harmon was relaxing with Mickelson in another super suite behind home plate after the seventh inning when the public address announcer at Canal Park informed the crowd that the Aeros were thrilled to welcome "the world's No. 1 golf instructor, a man who can fix your game now … Bruuuuce Fleisher!!"

Mickelson was not nearly so chipper on the matter of equipment. According to him, Callaway had crafted irons in anticipation of the new legislation involving grooves to take effect Jan. 1, 2010. "I was planning to use them this week, but I found out that the USGA had rejected them, even though they conform," said Mickelson. "Our company, same as other companies, spent a lot of time and money trying to keep up with the rules. But the rules keep changing. They just issued another clarification a few weeks ago. What's to prevent the USGA from doing that again in another few weeks? How many more times are they going to change the goalposts?"

Mickelson directed his ire primarily at Dick Rugge, the USGA senior technical director, and Jay Rains, the USGA vice president and chairman of the equipment standards committee. "They've got this czar complex," Mickelson charged. "If Dick Rugge and Jay Rains say our grooves conform but still won't be allowed, then something funny is going on. Either that or if they change the rules three months before implementation, it's a case of incompetence. It's got to be one or the other."

Rugge disputed Mickelson's complaint, saying, "This is not a case of a moving target. On the contrary, our guidelines all along have been to return the spin rate to what it was with the traditional 'V' grooves." Rugge indicated that certain manufacturers had misunderstood the original directive and he emphatically dismissed Mickelson's notion that there will be serial updates on what's legal and what isn't.

Grooves or no grooves, the Bridgestone Invitational will be staged at Firestone through 2014, as per Sunday's announcement of a sponsor extension. "I'm not against that," concluded Woods, who is so amazing so often.