Tiger: ‘It’s one of my best years’

Mark Leishman had unleashed a furious drive, emasculating the 600-yard par-5 ninth at Cog Hill, then stuck a flawless 4-iron which left the amiable young Aussie with an eagle putt.

Tiger Woods, meanwhile, was in trouble.

He’d blocked his drive about 60 yards to the right of the tree-lined fairway.

From an unpalatable lie, Woods somehow threaded a low 3-iron through the trees but his ball rolled too far, stopping beneath a tree on the other side of the fairway.

“I thought, ‘I might be able to get one or two up on him here, maybe put a little bit of pressure on him’,” said Leishman. “Maybe this could get back to four (shots).”

From 109 yards, Woods hit a low 9-iron from under the tree with just the right amount of hook spin. It landed 50 yards short of the green, scurried up the slope, ran onto the putting surface and stopped 15 feet behind the pin.

It was, by estimation, an exquisite play.

“When he hit that shot, I actually just started laughing, it was such a good shot,” said Leishman. “He didn’t really need it, but he needed it to keep a big lead.”

Leishman promptly missed his putt, tapping in for birdie, and Woods, as is his wont, made 4, too.

“Nice halve,” joked Woods, his seven-shot lead preserved.

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That’s what this pleasant Sunday on the outskirts of Chicago had come to for Tiger Woods: little games to play to keep his interest because the big game was all over.

His 71st victory on the Tour was all but guaranteed when he had started the final round of the BMW Championship seven shots ahead with only perhaps the ghosts of Hazeltine and the final-round failure at the PGA Championship to exorcise.

As Brandt Snedeker — who heartbreakingly four-putted from 12 feet on the last hole when two putts would’ve gotten him into the Tour Championship — said the night before, Woods would need to have a heart attack for anyone else to win this event.

But his heart was strong and Woods finished with a 3-under-par 68 — a round marked by solid if unspectacular play, a breathtaking eagle on the par-5 15th apart — which was good enough for an eight-stroke margin of victory. It was the 10th time he’s won by eight shots or more and the first since the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines last year.

“To play as well as I have of late and not get the W’s has been a little bit frustrating, no doubt, because I’ve been so close,” said Woods of his second-place finishes at the PGA and The Barclays.

“It’s just been a matter of making a couple putts here and there … and, lo and behold, boom! I hit the ball just as well, just as consistent this week, and I made a few putts. That’s how it happens.”

Now that he’s earned his sixth win — and goes into the Tour Championship at Atlanta’s East Lake in two weeks as the top FedEx Cup point earner and prohibitive favorite — Woods declared this comeback season among the best of his career.

“Absolutely, it’s one of my best years,” he said, “There’s no doubt about that.

“I haven’t won as many times as I did in 2000, didn’t win any majors this year, but I’ve never had a year where I’ve been this consistent.”
&#151 Tiger Woods

“I haven’t won as many times as I did in 2000, didn’t win any majors this year, but I’ve never had a year where I’ve been this consistent.

“To have, as I said, an opportunity just about every time I tee it up to win the championship on the back nine, I can’t tell you how proud I am.”

At first glance, the statement seems like a stretch, but in Woods’ mind it’s not as he gives this year added weight because of the uncertainty surrounding his rebuilt knee. He wasn’t sure whether it could stand up to the pressure of golf’s most high-octane swing.

“Most sports you come back after what I had and usually they strap a brace on you and you go play your sport,” he said, “I can’t swing in a brace on my left leg. That does more harm than good.”

“There were so many uncertainties at the beginning of the season. What kind of shots could I play? How was my recovery going to be from day-to-day? Am I going to hurt again? Am I going to stretch out this graft?

“To come off a knee surgery and to have this type of year, to be this consistent, is something that I’ve very proud of.”

The victory has made him, or it should have, a lock for Player of the Year.

“I’d say my name is up there on the list,” said Woods.

Only Steve Stricker, with three, has more than two wins. After rounds of 68-67-62 — a course record by four shots at the stretched-out Cog Hill — and 68, Woods’ adjusted scoring average for this year is 68.06, a whopping three shots a round better than the Tour average.

Stricker is second, 1.26 shots behind Woods; a deficit which translates to 5 shots per tournament.

Stricker, who entered this week leading the FedEx Cup race, drops to second ahead of the Tour Championship after finishing in a tie for 53rd at Cog Hill. He finished the week 25 shots behind Woods.

Some of Woods’ more recent foes fared equally poorly. He beat Y.E. Yang, the PGA champion, for instance, by 32 strokes, an average of eight per round.

Woods is now just two wins behind Jack Nicklaus on the all-time list. After that there’s only Sam Snead’s 82 to chase.

But consider that Snead and Nicklaus were both 42 when they won their 71st tournaments, nine years older than Woods.

“It feels good,” Woods said before heading back to Florida for a few well-earned days of rest and relaxation.

“Winning, that’s the ultimate goal.”