AKRON, Ohio -- Here's what I don't get about Tiger Woods leaving the PGA Championship the night before the Monday finish: More than just about anyone who has ever competed in this sport, he never quits.
That determination was on display again Sunday in the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club when he won for the fifth time this year, pretty much locking up Player of the Year honors. Clearly lacking his A game in the final round, Tiger was like a pitcher without his best stuff somehow figuring a way to win anyway.
As talented as Woods is and as much success as he has had, the guy never mails it in. He keeps plugging away and hopes others will come back to him, which is pretty much what happened at Firestone. It is that intense competitive fire in Tiger's belly that makes his decision to fly back to Florida with players still on the course at the PGA Championship so surprising.
Granted, a lot had to go wrong when play resumed at Baltusrol for Woods to get into a playoff. But if I were him I would have gone to the practice range on Monday morning when the others were getting ready to resume play and started hitting balls, sending the message that I was expecting a playoff. Now, that might be a little too close to trash talking for comfort in this genteel sport, but it would not have been out of place given the reality of the situation. In fact, when Woods says it was too much to ask for that many players to come back to him, he was giving more credit to his competitors than is perhaps deserved.
Woods was trailing Phil Mickelson, Steve Elkington, Thomas Bjorn and Davis Love III, and had Retief Goosen one stroke behind him. When Woods says they are all guys who know how to close out tournaments and, especially with the final two holes at Baltusrol being par-5s, it was unlikely they would all spit the bit, he is creating an argumentative straw man. The problem with that logic is that Elkington's only major championship was 10 years ago and Love's was eight years earlier and he has certainly let several other majors slip away from him (see 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills). Bjorn is without a major title and when he had a chance to win one -- at Royal St. Georges two years ago -- blew a three-stroke lead with four holes to play. As for Mickelson, well the Old Phil certainly let a few big ones get away.
When Mickelson made a bogey on No. 16 Monday morning, Woods was in Orlando -- one stroke off the lead. The 17th -- playing every inch of its 650 yards after the overnight rain -- was not really a birdie hole, and even if it is a par-5, the 18th is still the final hole of a major championship and anything can happen. Elkington snap-hooked his tee shot on No. 18 and ended up in the fairway only because of a lucky bounce. It could have been one of the most colossal blunders in the history of sports -- a four-way playoff for the PGA Championship and only three of the contestants are on hand.
Of course, Woods has the most irrefutable argument possible to defend his actions: He was right. The fact is, he won his gamble. To argue what might have been is a useless exercise well known to every sports fan. The simple truth is that Woods went home, and when the PGA Championship resumed on Monday morning things pretty much played out the way Woods said they would play out. It's difficult to argue with that -- but not impossible.
Here's what I think was going on in that Tiger brain: Leaving was the action of a frustrated man. Certainly, Woods had to be kicking himself on Sunday night for the fact that over the first three rounds of the PGA Championship he played the par-5s -- holes he devours -- one over par. Woods wanted very much to be the only man to win three majors in a year twice, and when he realized he had not been defeated at Baltusrol, but rather gave the tournament away, he took his toys and went home.
Hey, it wasn't like he had to endure another night in a cheap hotel or stand in the security line at La Guardia Airport the next day. Staying for the Monday finish would have merely meant one more night in a rented house, and delaying by a half-day a flight on his private jet.
As the leaders made the turn on Sunday at Firestone in the NEC it appeared as if Woods was losing contact with the field. He was putting poorly, making bogeys and struggling to make something happen. But he fought and he fought, finally making a birdie 4 on the 16th hole that would have been a bogey 6 for just about anyone else. This is a man who has made magic happen so many times on the golf course that when his 18-foot, downhill, sharply breaking birdie putt found the cup on No. 16 to give him the solo lead, it was less startling than it was expected, especially for Chris DiMarco, who was finished and watching on TV, wondering if he and Woods would be in a playoff.
In 1997, at the end of his first full year on tour, Woods was asked want kind of toll Tigermania -- which was non-stop after he won the Masters by 12 strokes -- took on him. He said that because of the physical and emotional exhaustion, "I lost my ability to will things to happen." Those words coming from just about anyone else would gave sounded arrogant, but Woods is one of those athletes, like Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, who seems to have the ability to will victory.
Events proved Woods correct in flying home from Baltusrol on Sunday night, but that alone does not justify the action. It was absolutely un-Tigerlike. What we saw on Sunday at Firestone is the Tiger that is in many ways more impressive than the one who appears at times to have skills from another planet. Woods won the NEC simply because he never gave up. The man can grind with the best of them. That was a different Tiger than the one who left Baltusrol early.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor for Golf World magazine