I’m still trying to process what I saw this afternoon, but I know it was an I-Was-There moment, whether it be tomorrow or 11 or 18 years from now. The last five holes were kind of a blur and I’ve felt like I’ve been in the twilight zone all week, so that doesn’t help! One thing I know for sure: Tiger Woods’ 73rd PGA Tour victory at The Memorial Tournament — his fifth title here — was incredibly special and more impressive than the 72nd win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
Not just because he tied Jack Nicklaus’ career-record of 73 PGA Tour wins in Jack’s backyard. (When you stop for a second, 73 is a lot of freaking tournaments and 14 is a lot of freaking majors. 18 or 19 is absurd.) The circumstances, the theatrical closing, the conditions — the entire week couldn’t have been scripted better.
Although Woods ran away with the title at Bay Hill by a decisive five shots, he shot a ho-hum par at a so-so course (with all due respect — but I think we can agree that Memorial is a purer and much more challenging golf course) with a stronger field. I saw and felt the aura of the pre-Scandal Tiger in the last four.
I kid you not — literally, after his tee shot on 15, I was walking up the hole with GolfChannel.com’s Ryan Ballengee and I said, he has The Aura. At the moment, I can barely comprehend what happened, let alone express in words how weirdly magical the atmosphere is when Tiger finished the way he did coming down the stretch to close out a tournament (and reminds me how lucky I am to cover these moments in sports — it’s what we all live for, right?). It’s chaotic yet exciting when you know you’re witnessing and covering a tiny piece of history.
He held himself differently than I’d seen in a long time — which were reminiscent of the glimpses I caught on the front nine in the final round at the 2011 Masters and the back nine in the third round of the 2010 U.S. Open.
Tiger’s ballstriking was excellent in all four rounds. He fought through a fever of 102 on Friday and Saturday, not to mention awful allergies on Thursday. His fever broke on Saturday night, As he said earlier in the week, you can’t “fake” it out here. Translation: If you’re struggling with your ballstriking or any part of your game, you can’t scramble and get away with posting a decent score — at least not for 72 holes.
After a hot start with four birdies in the first seven holes, Tiger cooled off with a bogey on No. 8 and then another on No. 10 (which is when I caught up to follow him and Rickie Fowler). He was striking the ball well, but the gusty, swirling conditions made it difficult to be too aggressive hitting into the small green with almost-sadistic pin placements (well, really tough, Jack even called out PGA Tour official Jon Brendle for the back-left hole location in the middle of the presser — it was kind of funny, actually).
Standing on the 15th tee, Tiger trailed Rory Sabbatini by two shots with four holes to play.
On the 15th tee Tiger went through his pre-shot routine and started to take the club back when the shutter sound of camera phones distracted him. He backed off, but he didn’t pay it much attention, other than a glance back, but no evil eye. He quickly restarted his routine and confidently crushed a drive down the middle, complete with his signature club twirl.
That’s when I said to myself, he’s going to pull this off. He looked confident and calm. When he missed a shot, he wasn’t happy and a few times he dropped the club in his follow-through, but he let it out and moved on to the next. I was walking and talking up the 15th fairway with Ballengee and he noted that Tiger wasn’t letting his misses deter him (unlike what we’d seen recently — ahem, the 16th tee at Augusta National…).
In those last four holes, he hit a few shots where he started walking off the tee almost before he was finished with his follow-through. A quick glance and that was all — he knew he struck it just the way he wanted.
We all know what happened on the 16th — the impossibly amazing chip-in complete with the vintage Tiger uppercut right-arm fist pump and roar — and the rest is history.
Whether or not Tiger will keep up his form for the U.S. Open at Olympic in just over a week is unknown and I don’t even care to speculate. Let’s just enjoy the moment.
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)