September 21, 2014

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Jim Litke: Tiger thinks, therefore he wins

TULSA, Okla. — The best of Tiger Woods is still to come.
We’re not talking about some indefinite time off in the future. We’re talking next season.
Woods won the PGA Championship on Sunday by just two shots. He started the day with a three-stroke lead, saw it balloon to five and then shrink to one.
In the end, he had to hold off a journeyman named Woody Austin, who was playing lights-out in a major championship for the first time in his life, and a familiar rival, Ernie Els, who hadn’t played anywhere near that tough in a long, long time.
“I just felt if I played the back nine under par that I would win the tournament,” Woods said. “That didn’t happen.”
The only time he was real danger of losing, though, came after a three-putt at No. 14.
“I felt like I gave all the momentum back to Ernie and to Woody. And I just felt like, I got myself in this mess, I need to get myself out of it. I did serious yelling at myself going up to the 15th tee,” Woods added, “just to get back into what I do.”
He did, then made pars the rest of the way to win the tournament. It was one of his most controlled, masterful performances between the ears, even if it didn’t always look that way out on the golf course.
Most people put Woods at his most dominant during a stretch that began with the PGA Championship at Medinah in 1999 and lasted until the middle of 2002. And it’s hard to argue otherwise. During what qualifies as the greatest sustained run in major championship history, he won seven of the 11 majors contested, including three in 2000 and the first two of 2002.
That run ended in the wind and sideways rain at Muirfield in the third round of the British Open, when Woods shot 81. Less than two years later, he pink-slipped swing coach Butch Harmon, who had been at his side since Woods was 17 and began revamping his swing — in private, at first — under the tutelage of Hank Haney.
As the winless streak in the majors stretched to 10, Woods stubbornly insisted he was “close.” Then he proved he was as good as his word by using the flatter, wider swing — it lets Woods bring the clubhead through the hitting zone on a more consistent path, for a nanosecond longer — to win the 2005 Masters.
And guess what? Beginning with that win at Augusta and continuing through Sunday’s triumph at Southern Hills, Woods has now won five of the last dozen majors and one each of the last three years. He also won nine times in 2006 and five times already this season, not to mention finishing second at both the Masters and U.S. Open.
When someone asked whether he considered himself a better player now than in 2000, he didn’t hesitate.
“Yeah,” Woods replied, “by far. Just experience. Understanding how to handle it and how to manage my game around the golf course. I have more shots than I did then, just because I’ve had that many more years to learn ‘em. And how to make adjustments on the fly, that just comes with experience.
“And I’ll say the same thing seven years from now,” he added, “when I’m more experienced than I am now.”
The wins may never look as easy as they did back in 2000, in part because the wide gap in talent, fitness and drive Woods had over the field has narrowed.
“Back when I first came out here on Tour, how many guys had personal trainers? I don’t think any of them did. Now, going to the fitness van, everyone has a trainer there. Everyone’s gotten stronger, more fit. They’re hitting the ball farther. Technology has certainly helped that out. … And guys are shooting a lot better scores. It has become a lot harder to win tournaments.
“But that’s the fun of it,” he added. “That’s the challenge.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him
at jlitke@ap.org.