- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

CHASKA, Minn.

After watching Tiger Woods march to the top of the leader board with a sweat-free 67, former Hazeltine hero Rich Beem perfectly summarized the first round of the 91st PGA Championship.

“It’s kind of ominous,” said Beem, voicing what every player not named Woods must be feeling. “I think he’s got a pretty good track record [as a leader].”

That might be the understatement of the season.

Traditionally a somewhat sluggish starter in the Slams, Woods now boasts a dozen opening rounds in the 60s at majors. Eight of the previous 11 quick starts resulted in triumphs.



On some level, perhaps everybody felt Thursday’s bogey-free lightning bolt coming.

In the past, Tiger’s MO had always been to spend pre-major weeks sharpening his skills at home with only past and present swing instructors Butch Harmon and Hank Haney for company. It’s hard to argue with a formula that had produced 12 of his 14 major victories.

But this season, as he tried to shake off competitive rust while gradually adjusting to his surgically rebuilt left knee, that strategy hadn’t paid dividends. In each of the season’s first three majors, Woods found himself playing catch-up after scratchy opening rounds - 70 at the Masters (tied for sixth), 74 at the U.S. Open (tied for sixth) and 71 at the British Open (missed the cut).

After that dismal performance at Turnberry, Woods decided to change his schedule heading into Hazeltine. For the first time in his career, the 33-year-old played both weeks in the run-up to a major. The result was arguably his best golf of the season, the 69th (Buick Open) and 70th (Bridgestone Invitational) victories of his PGA Tour career and a seamlessly torrid roll through Thursday’s opener.

“I’m playing well, no doubt,” Woods said after hitting 12 of 14 fairways and 15 greens. “I feel like the things I’m doing, they are getting progressively better.”

As he coasted around the massive par-72 layout in complete command of all parts of his game, it seemed he is long overdue a classic, wire-to-wire, never-a-doubt, record-smashing, field-trashing, Woodsian whipping.

It just seems Thursday’s round, which easily could have been a 65 or 66 had a handful of sub-15-footers behaved, represented only the first dose of dominance - like Tiger just popped the top on the first of a four-pack of Pebble Circa 2000 on the boys in the opener, and he’s got three more slugs of see-you-later waiting.

Obviously, there’s no such thing as a mortal lock in sports. But an opening-round major lead for arguably the most formidable closer since Alexander the Great put down his spear is as close as it gets.

“There are times I’ve put it together and I’ve had some pretty good margins of victory,” said Woods, no doubt thinking of his eight-plus winning margins at the 1997 Masters, 2000 U.S. Open and 2000 British Open.

Nobody really thought Woods would get back to his 2000 peak of laughable dominion… except, of course, Tiger.

“I would win now,” Woods said emphatically when asked Tuesday who would win a match between the current Tiger and the player who won nine times and three majors in 2000. “I know how to manage my game a hell of a lot better than I did back then. I have so many more golf shots now to get me around the golf course. And that’s just experience.”

That likely would be a far more compelling competition than the one likely to occur the next three days. There are a handful of compelling characters giving chase - Vijay Singh (69), Robert Allenby (69), Hunter Mahan (69), David Toms (69) and Lee Westwood (70). But only Padraig Harrington (68) potentially seems capable of keeping pace with Woods’ expected lock step into red numbers.

Perhaps there will be a reprise of last week’s Woods-Paddy duel at Firestone sans meddling rules official John Paramor(on).

Perhaps this is the week Woods finally finds a rival worthy to swap shots with him at his best who isn’t named May, Beem, DiMarco or Mediate. Not a fearless journeyman, but a truly elite-level rival.

Woods and world No. 2 Phil Mickelson have never pulled away from the pack on a Slam Sunday, but who among us hasn’t wondered deep down if Mickelson even wanted such a matchup?

Harrington has matched Lefty’s major total (three) in his past nine starts. Like Woods, he wasn’t satisfied with success, striving instead for perfection; the Irishman broke apart and rebuilt his swing after last year’s triumph at Oakland Hills. Like Tiger, he ignored the critics who mocked him, claiming the final product would be better.

Perhaps it will be. Perhaps this is the week golf gets this generation’s epic duel. One thing is certain: Harrington genuinely wants another go at Goliath.

“I definitely would look forward to being paired up with him,” Harrington said. “If you’re matched up with Tiger, it means you’re in the right place. If you don’t want to be in that spot, you shouldn’t be playing golf.”

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