Hoylake Story: The Doctor Was In

June 19, 2008

It's not them. It's him. Tiger Woods' contemporaries do not aspire to be sparring partners, stage props or mere pylons along his express lane toward the Golden Bear's enchanted lair of major trophies. It's not that the best of the rest lack innards or skill or desire. These men simply were born into the era of a golf prodigy, who fills their pockets, then leaves their stomachs empty. When Woods doesn't dominate foes, he wears them out. The doctor-patient relationship is implicit. He decides on the prescription, and they take their medicine. The result, with varying degrees of discomfort, is euthanasia.

What Woods exhibited during the 135th British Open was splendid ball-striking, among his purest clinics yet in a continuing series. Bagging driver on all but one hole, the guy who has sent peers scurrying to the fitness trailer in recent years routinely found himself away on approach shots. Mind you, they were authored so frequently from fairways as to be redundant. All the better for Tiger to apply pressure with irons, long and short, their trajectories altered according to circumstance. If he needed a 4-iron that floated like a butterfly or an 8-iron that stung like a bee, Woods worked Royal Liverpool as if it were his backyard instead of a course he had seen only in pictures.

Sunday spectators chanted as if anticipating a heavyweight fight. Woods entered the ring last. He was introduced as defending champion by Ivor Robson, the announcer with the iron kidneys. In the other corner was Sergio Garcia, who went out in 29 Saturday. But he suffered a TKO in the fourth round with 39 on the front. Saturday, Woods' partner was Ernie Els—unlike Sergio, a pal. The Big Easy had reloaded for Royal Liverpool, appointing a second head doctor, Bob Rotella, leaving regular shrink Jos Vanstiphout to whisper in the other ear. Before that, for 36 holes, they stuck Woods with Nick Faldo, whose version of pre-tournament peace talks was rather interesting. True, Woods acknowledged his ABC swing critic on the range. But President Bush and Vladimir Putin also shook hands last week as a photo op.

Woods worked Royal Liverpool as of it were his backyard instead of a course he had seen only in pictures.'

Yes, they threw everything at Woods. Even Phil Mickelson tried to be different, bringing Dave Pelz while Rick Smith stayed home. But all Woods tossed back was a bone. He wrestled with his short stick Saturday, creating false hope except among bookies, who installed him as a 4-to-5 morning favorite despite his 54-hole lead of only one stroke. His three-putts have multiplied in the last couple of years, and he struggled again during the third round. Not with his line, with his pace. This recurrent pattern worries the Woods entourage, but it's like calling a Bentley flawed because of that bug on the windshield. Tiger figured it out by mid-afternoon Sunday. He was rolling the ball quite nicely. On No. 5, Woods dropped a 25-footer for eagle while Garcia, dressed in yellow, stood there like a second banana. Seven years ago at Medinah CC, the Spaniard's coming-out party was hailed as a challenge to the Tiger dynasty. Alas, Garcia shall return there next month without any fancy hardware. But don't blame Sergio only. It's Tiger's fault that adversaries fade from view, one by one, like warm-up acts for Sinatra.

Is there any relief on the horizon? That depends on Tiger, whose 11 majors are as many as Phil, Ernie, Vijay and Retief combined. "I'd be surprised if he doesn't retire sooner rather than later," said Mark O'Meara, who pointed Woods toward instructor Hank Haney, now O'Meara's former coach. "That's just an opinion, but I don't expect to see him playing much past his early 40s. I've asked Tiger, 'What if you beat Jack's record when you're 37?' He said he'll probably go for more. What will chase him away is the constant scrutiny by the media. The microscope, the questions, the cameras."

There was an absurd number of cameras outside the ropes Sunday, vexing caddie Steve Williams and Woods. He backed off several shots, but not the game plan, and three consecutive birdies starting at the difficult 14th vanquished Chris DiMarco, an intrepid competitor. Nicklaus' rubber snake was Lee Trevino, who won his share against Jack. DiMarco hasn't solved Woods, at least not yet, but his fiery effort will be a salve for Tom Lehman, United States Ryder Cup captain. He seems amenable to having young blood on his traveling squad for Ireland in September, but not tired young blood. Amazingly, there isn't an American under age 30 ranked among the top 40 in the world. As Nicklaus noted during a cameo visit to Royal Liverpool, besides Tiger, Phil and Jim Furyk, "it's pretty thin." That said, Europe aches for one of its own to win this oldest championship again. South Africa waits, and also Australia, for Tiger to three-putt once too often. He cried Sunday evening. A superior course strategist, he never loses it until nobody else can win it.