Woods stumbles but doesn’t fall

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TULSA, Okla. — Tiger Woods wobbles, but he never falls down.

Tiger’s final loop around sultry Southern Hills yesterday proved to be far more precarious than the expected victory lap. Woods‘ 13th major uprising at the 89th PGA Championship wasn’t without its share of Sunday warts.

For perhaps the first time in his career as a Slam front-runner, Woods, 31, deviated from his week-long script for success at Southern Hills. Hitting far more drivers and woods off of tees than he had through 54 holes of dominance, Woods brought some unwanted self-induced suspense to the championship with errant tee shots on Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 13 and a somewhat sloppy three-putt bogey on the 14th.

As Woods walked off the 14th green at even-par for the day and 7 under for the tournament, the handful of miscues had reduced his three-stroke edge at the start of the finale to a tenuous single stroke over surging challengers Ernie Els and Woody Austin.

When posterity remembers Woods‘ 13th major, it will point to this moment: Woods fuming at 7 under after a missed 4-foot par putt at the 14th. Els approaching the 16th tee box at 6 under off of consecutive birdies. And Austin also at 6 under in the 15th fairway, perhaps fancying himself an unlikely Tiger-tamer after a rousing three-birdie spurt (Nos. 11-13).

Tiger was stumbling. He mystifyingly had abandoned his iron-happy game plan off the tee, playing right into his challengers’ hands. And Els and Austin were charging, a proven champion and a man desperate to prove himself.

Though questioning Woods always has been a futile business, it certainly looked as if the finale of the PGA could result in the first blown save of Tiger’s brilliant Slam career.

“I did some serious yelling at myself walking to the 15th tee box,” said Woods, who finished with an 8-under 272. “I made a bogey at No. 9 and a bogey at No. 14 to let the other guys back in it. … That three-putt had given all the momentum to Ernie and Woody, so I felt like I needed to do something. I said to myself, ‘OK, you got yourself into this mess. Now, it’s time to earn your way out of it.’ ”

Few athletes in the history of sports have been able to respond in the moment like Woods. Nicklaus … Jordan … Montana … Jeter, the others with this sublime talent need no further identification. From his days as the comeback king at the U.S. Amateur to his seminal major duels with Sergio Garcia (1999 PGA) and Bob May (2000 PGA) to his unforgettably dramatic boomerang chip-in at the 16th at Augusta National (2005 Masters), Woods rarely has failed to deliver the goods in the moment at majors. And certainly while less dramatic, yesterday’s response was equally impressive.

Returning to his Southern Hills formula, Woods piped a 4-iron down the center of the fairway at No. 15, lasered a 7-iron to 15 feet and dead-centered the birdie putt to reclaim his two-stroke margin and announce his refusal to devolve into a slow fade down the stretch.

“When I made that putt on 15, it felt great,” Woods said. “It felt like I had the momentum again, and I was back in control of the tournament.”

Almost equally impressive was how Woods then handled his drive at the 16th, a converted par-5 that measures 507 yards. The prodigious length of the hole had forced Woods to hit driver there all week. And yesterday, after not hitting a single fairway in five previous swings with woods on tees, Tiger hit his last and most important drive with the big stick right down the center of the fairway.

Compare that response in the crucible with the way Els responded with Woods leading by one and the Slam stress making the hottest major in history seem like Sunday in the Sahara. Els took the tee at the 16th trailing the flailing Woods by only one stroke and proceeded to snipe his drive dead left into the trees. Els punched out, wedged on and two-putted for bogey, retreating in the moment.

That’s why Els has only three major victories and an underachieving Slam resume dotted with almosts, near-misses and a disconcerting 25 other top-10 finishes. The laid-back South African might be able to beat the likes of Colin Montgomerie (1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens) with such a soft constitution but not golf’s resident demigod.

Austin’s challenge was far more inspired, given that the 43-year-old career rank-and-filer arrived in Tulsa without a single major top-10 to his credit and exited with a silver medal and a slot on the U.S. Presidents Cup squad.

But the fact of the matter is neither Els nor Austin was able to answer Woods‘ birdie statement at the 15th down the stretch.

By his own definition, Woods‘ victory at Southern Hills turns a good year into a great one by replacing his 0-for-2007 Slam futility with a fourth Wanamaker Trophy. It also keeps Woods well ahead of Nicklaus’ pace in his quest to surpass the Golden Bear’s record 18 major triumphs. Nicklaus also won the PGA Championship at age 31 in 1971, but it marked just his ninth major uprising. Nicklaus didn’t win his 13th major until the 1975 Masters, giving Woods the equivalent of a four-year cushion on the Nicklaus pace.

“Even though I’m at 13, it’s still a long way away,” Woods said. “Hopefully, health permitting and everything goes right and I keep improving, that I’ll one day surpass that.”

Given that Woods now seems to have conquered his issues with shortish major venues that reward accuracy far more than distance, winning two of his last three majors on such courses, that once-outlandish goal now seems like a fairly modest given.

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