TIGER Woods again demonstrated his mastery of major championship golf in the 88th US PGA at Medinah yesterday when he concentrated on avoiding mistakes and taking advantage of birdie opportunities as they arose in pursuit of his 12th major title.
Woods was poised to eclipse Walter Hagen as the second most prolific major winner of all time behind Jack Nicklaus thanks to a performance which matched precise ball striking with astute course management.
A model of calm, Woods was also cooler and more collected than his rivals. After making four birdies in eight holes to reach 18 under par, it was unthinkable that Tiger would gift-wrap this major and present it to an opponent in the way Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie did on the last hole of the US Open at Winged Foot.
Like many onlookers, Tiger regarded Medinah as something of a soft touch by major standards. Instead of scrambling to make pars, the golfers were forced to chase birdies as if it was a regular US Tour event.
"It was different than most majors because you were hitting soft greens and soft fairways," said Woods. "In most majors, if you make pars and sprinkle in a couple birdies here and there, you're looking pretty good. I've always preferred the winning score at majors to be in single digits. I think that's always good. If I can shoot one under par per nine holes for all 72, then eight under par I think is a very good way to play. But, you know, you'd be run over if you did that here."
On a bright and breezy afternoon in Chicago, Woods laid down a marker when he birdied the first hole to move in front of Luke Donald. Thanks to a knock down 7 iron which finished 12 feet from the cup, Woods was able to hole a 12-foot putt which sent a clear message of intent to his rivals.
On the second, Tiger fell to his knees in exasperation after an even longer birdie putt on the par 3 seared the edge of the hole. But a two-putt birdie on the par 5 fifth kept Woods in pole position before a 40-foot birdie putt on the sixth all but killed off the competition. By way of rubbing salt in the wounds, Tiger made another monstrous birdie putt on the eighth.
Having won his 11 previous major titles from the front on the last day, Woods' authority on Sundays was underlined by an even more impressive statistic. Of the 48 events Tiger led around the world after 54 holes, only Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Lee Westwood, Thomas Bjorn and Ed Fiori were able to beat him.
There was nothing wrong with Donald's ball striking over the opening holes but his touch with the putter was lacking. He also didn't enjoy much luck when his tee shot on the fourth nestled in a divot. The Englishman's approach to the green drifted left and, after chipping on, his par saving putt lipped out. It was his first bogey in 40 holes. On the fifth, Donald eased a superb wedge to three feet but again the short birdie attempt lipped out.
Elsewhere, Mike Weir looked almost as sharp as Woods when he birdied the third and fifth. The Canadian left-hander vaulted past Donald after six holes but catching Woods was another matter.
Sergio Garcia birdied the third and fifth holes and was unlucky not to make more putts over the opening stretch. But he ran out of gas with successive bogeys at the seventh and eighth holes.
On the other hand, Adam Scott, the highest-ranked golfer without a major title, made five birdies over the outward half to reach 12 under, the same mark as Shaun Micheel, the former PGA champion.
Having hurt a knee on Saturday, David Howell was troubled by a shoulder injury yesterday which almost forced him to withdraw with five holes to play. The Englishman battled his way to the finishing line, however, to sign for 82 and 297. Obviously in discomfort, Howell will have treatment in Akron and still hopes to play in the Bridgestone Invitational on Thursday in order to retain his US Tour card.
"I felt my shoulder on my last few shots on the range and thought nothing of it," Howell recalled. "But it soon became a bit of a problem and I thought about withdrawing with five to play. I don't like to blame adversity, but clearly it was affecting me."
As decent performances from Donald and Garcia eased some of Ian Woosnam's selection headaches for next month's Ryder Cup match at the K Club, American coach Butch Harmon added his support to handing Darren Clarke a captain's pick. Harmon, who numbers Clarke as well as Woods among his former pupils, said if he was in Woosnam's shoes then he would telephone the Irishman and ask him if he wanted to play. Should Clarke, whose wife Heather died of cancer last week, say 'yes', then Harmon reckons Europe must offer him a wild card.
"Woosie should telephone him and see how he feels," said Harmon. "I wouldn't lay down any conditions about where or when he plays beforehand. Darren is an honest guy and you can leave it to him to make the right decision."
Harmon also regards Westwood as the natural choice for Woosnam's other wild card. "He's in good form, has plenty of Ryder Cup experience and was one of Europe's leading scorers with four and a half out of five two years ago. The good news for Woosie is Donald played his way into the team at Medinah, because there's no way you could have left him out."
Sandy Lyle, one of Woosnam's assistants at the K Club, was surprised there's even a debate about Clarke's involvement. "Heather's death is a terrible tragedy," said the Scot, "but it wasn't sudden and I'm sure Darren will want to get back into a routine as quickly as possible. He's already indicated he wants to play in Madrid before the Ryder Cup, and I'm sure that he'll want to play in front of an Irish gallery at the K Club."
Woosnam's team is being formed from a position of strength but Lehman is likely to add Stewart Cink and either Davis Love III or Scott Verplank as his wild card selections simply to compensate for a shortage of experience. The one pick who would add passion and razzmatazz to the American cause is John Daly - but Wild Thing is too wild a choice for a wild card.
Woods, Mickelson, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Chris DiMarco and Chad Campbell are all feisty competitors. But a re-jigged American points system designed to reward current form has opened the door for a batch of rookies, Vaughn Taylor, JJ Henry, Zach Johnson and Brett Wetterich, to make their debuts in Ireland. "This is where you run into a problem with the American team," added Harmon, who commentates for Sky. "I'm not saying they're not good players, but they've never been in that arena before."