Tiger conjures up a little magic
On Friday, Tiger Woods declared that to return to his winning ways, he needed only to master the mechanics of his swing.
“It’s not about magic,” he said.
But in the end, it was exactly about magic.
“Well, one shot was, at least,” Woods conceded with a smirk on Sunday after one of his most dramatic — and historic — victories.
On a sun-splashed, windy afternoon at the Memorial, Woods reached into the past and pulled off one of those signature shots that defined his greatness, triggering cacophonous roars throughout Muirfield Village and leaving no less an authority than Jack Nicklaus gasping for superlatives.
“That was the most unbelievable, gutsy shot I’ve ever seen,” said the Golden Bear.
“Under the circumstances, the circumstances being Tiger has been struggling, he found himself in a position (where) it was either fish or cut bait.
“If he’s short, the tournament’s over, if he’s long, the tournament’s over.
“He puts it in the hole.”
From the back of the 16th green, Woods hit a perfect flop shot that landed just where it had to, barely on the baked putting surface, then trickled toward the hole before finally disappearing.
Woods likened it to his famous chip-in at the 2005 Masters on the par-3 16th.
“For it to land as soft as it did was kind of a surprise,” he said.
“Then I didn’t think it was going to get there at one point. Kind of like 16 at Augusta, I thought I was going to leave it short somehow.
“And then it fell in.”
The most unlikely of birdies — Woods was trying, he said later, just to leave himself 10 feet for par — brought a full uppercut and fist pump, a celebration we don’t often see anymore from the 36-year-old.
It also entirely changed the complexion of the tournament. Woods was at the time one stroke behind Rory Sabbatini, who looked set to birdie the par-5 15th.
But when Sabbatini failed to birdie behind him, then bogeyed the 16th — after clipping the flagstick with his bunker shot — Woods held the lead by himself and went into imperious mode.
Gone was the uncertainty that’s been his motif for almost three years; in its place was the game face Woods used to win those 14 majors.
His long iron off the 18th tee was a thing of beauty, travelling 265 yards and matched by the 9 iron from 172 yards that landed perfectly in the back right corner of the green then caught the slope and swung down toward the hole, setting up a nine footer for birdie.
Woods loves theatrics so, of course, buried the putt, and the galleries erupted again; among them Nicklaus, who’d been sitting by the green and leapt to his feet to applaud Tiger’s fifth victory at his tournament.
Golf’s two greatest champions then shared a poignant moment, as they should have for this was win No. 73rd on the PGA Tour for Woods, tying his boyhood idol for second place all-time.
Only Sam Snead, with 82, is now ahead of him.
“It’s special for me to do it with Jack here,” Woods said.
“If I would have won it somewhere else, it would have just been, I tied Jack. But to do it here and have him here right next to me, that means something (because) he’s the greatest champion that’s ever lived.”
Nicklaus looked at Woods and — as they like to do to each other — gave him some needle.
“Well, he had to rub it in my face right here, didn’t he?” Jack joked.
“No, if he’s going to do it, which he was obviously going to, I’d like to see it happen here.”
Now, inevitably, the storyline moves to the US Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club in two weeks’ time.
Skeptics will note that Woods won at Arnold Palmer’s place, Bay Hill, two weeks before the Masters, prompting many to declare him the favorite at Augusta National.
Except that Woods imploded, finishing in a career-worst tie for 40th. He then missed the cut at Quail Hollow and followed that with another middling performance at The Players.
What’s different this time?
“At Bay Hill, I just didn’t quite have the control I did today,” he said.
“At Bay Hill, I was comfortable hitting (the ball) down, uncomfortable hitting it up.
“I got exposed (at the Masters) because I wasn’t able to get the ball up in the air comfortably, and it showed.
“Went to work on it for the next few weeks and I finally got it. It came around here when I needed it. This is a high ball golf course. You’ve got to get the ball up in the air and you’ve got to land it soft.
“And I did it.”
What’s always been true about Woods is that he gets his confidence from his ball-striking.
And he hit it magnificently all week at Muirfield Village, one of the toughest tracks on the Tour. He led the field in greens hit in regulation and it was a measure of his dominance from tee-to-green that he finished only 41st — of the 71 who made the cut — in putting.
“Put on a stripe show,” he said of his ball-striking, “I hit the the ball as good as I have in years.”
And that was true.
But what was also undeniably true was that, with the tournament on the line, it was that ol’ Tiger magic that won it for him.