<
>

Tiger wins this one for Pops

A decade ago, not far from Hoylake, Earl Woods realized the time had come.
Watching Tiger fashion a smooth 66 in the second round of the British Open
at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club, the father realized the son was ready
to play with the professionals. It was that day when Earl knew his
20-year-old prodigy would not be intimidated by the guys who play for pay.

"I didn't want him to go out there until I was sure he could play with the
big boys," Earl said a few years later. "More importantly, I didn't want him
to go out there until I knew that he knew he could play with the big boys."

The question, really, is can anyone currently playing the game hang with
Woods when he is in full Tiger mode. The answer Sunday at Royal Liverpool
was a defiant, "No."

Winning his first major championship since the death of his father shortly
after The Masters, Tiger wore down a leaderboard jammed with talent. It
looked very much like not only is his game back, but so is the intimidation
factor. Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Chris DiMarco and Adam Scott
all had a shot at Tiger, but none could pull the trigger. Woods teased the
field by posting a ho-hum 71 in Saturday's third round, then dusted them on
Sunday with a 67 that left him at 18-under-par 270, two strokes ahead of
DiMarco, who closed with a gutsy 68.

Just like that, the missed cut at Winged Foot in the U.S. Open was a distant memory, a mere bump on the road
to shattering Jack Nicklaus' record for major championships.

When Woods collected his third silver Claret Jug at Hoylake it represented
his 11th professional major championship (tying him with Walter Hagen) and -­
with his three U.S. Amateur titles -- his 14th major overall (surpassing
Bobby Jones by one). Nicklaus has 18 professional majors and 20 all told.
That means Woods is either seven behind or six behind, depending on which
number you think he is chasing.

Still only 30 years old, it seems as if only
injury can prevent him from shattering both marks. All questions about how
the death of his father would impact his play were answered at Hoylake. And
just as certainly, if the performances by the other top players at Hoylake
were any indication, it was also apparent that there is no one currently
playing the game who can stop him.

One by one they fell. First Garcia, sabotaged by a putter that appears more
and more to be the club that could well keep him from ever winning a major
title. Els, perhaps the only player this side of Phil Mickelson who can be
considered an underachiever despite three major championships, just doesn't
seem to have the inner strength to win when Woods is in the hunt. Furyk
faded early and DiMarco, who was playing with the recent death of his mother
heavy in his heart, hung in there gamely, but Woods was simply more than he
could handle.

Nick Faldo, Tiger's favorite TV analyst, once said that golf is not about
the quality of your good shots, it is about the quality of your bad ones.
The key, the Englishman said, was to make your mistakes not that painful
while biding time and waiting for your competition to make a more penalizing
errors. Since Faldo is a guy who won all three of his green jackets after
trailing going to the back nine on Sunday at The Masters, he knows all about
waging a war of attrition against a leaderboard.

That's how Woods won this
Open Championship. No one protects a lead better than Tiger does.

On Sunday when most of the others in contention were giving it their please-land-in-the-fairway swings and I-hope-the-hole-gets-in-the-way putting
stroke, Woods played with the ease of someone sneaking in a few holes by
himself before meeting the family for dinner. In fact, that pretty much was
what Tiger was doing -- playing by himself. Not only did no one really
pressure him, but it is unlikely Woods would have noticed even if they did.

He had a game plan -- keep the driver in the bag -- and truly nothing anyone
else did mattered to him. He was playing the golf course, not the field,
just as his rival is history, not Mickelson, Els or anyone else.

The question is this: How come no one else figured out what Woods figured
out? Or is it simply the case that Woods is the only player with the skills
and power to win a major championship hitting only one driver all week? Yes,
Woods' skills are enormous, but so is his mental focus. Rarely does he make
an error in judgment on the golf course.

The only thing Woods seemed
incapable of controlling at Royal Liverpool were the incessant camera phones
whirring on every tee box. Tiger's only fallible moment came on No. 12 when
he backed off his shot because of a camera, missed the green well left and
failed to make up-and-down. That bogey, preceded just minutes earlier by a
DiMarco birdie, cut his lead to one stroke.

But Woods is Woods. He stuffed an iron approach shot on No. 14 and made the
birdie putt -- ever notice how he always makes the putt after a great shot? ­-
and followed with another birdie on the next hole and a two-putt birdie on
No. 16. That was pretty much that. When push came to shove Woods went
birdie-birdie-birdie. This was a vintage Tiger Woods performance that should
be bottled and opened 100 years from now to give future generations a taste
of what he was like when he was at his best.

The dream was deferred a bit when Tiger missed the cut at the U.S. Open
after not having competed for nine weeks. But on Sunday at Hoylake, Woods
said thanks to Pops. Ten years after Earl saw at the game's oldest
tournament that his son was ready to play professionally, the boy now a man
proved -- once again -- that at his best he is the best, certainly of his era
and perhaps of all time. Four Masters, three British Opens, three U.S.
Amateurs, two U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships.

Of all of them, this was
the first without Pops. And you know for Tiger that makes it all the more
special. The tears he shared with his caddie, Steve Williams, and his wife,
Elin, when it was over told it all.

This was perfection for Pops.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor for Golf World magazine