Tiger Woods has always been Sergio Garcia’s nemesis – and still is. Nothing has changed it seems.
As he has too often done before, Spain’s ‘El Nino’ folded in his closing-stretch battle with the World No 1, this time blowing himself out of contention when he dunked three balls in the water on the final two holes – and this after leading for much of the tournament and then still being tied for the lead with Woods when he walked onto the 17th tee to play the second-last of the regulation 72 holes.
His blunder at the 17th, where, al la ‘Tin Cup’, he plopped two shots into the water with his pitching wedge for a shattering quadruple-bogey seven, damaged his cause irreparably and when he found water again on the 18th it served only to increase his humiliation.
For Garcia, it was an especially tragic ending to what so easily could have been a triumph that would always be remembered as the one that gave him some of the greatest satisfaction of his career.
Not only because it would have helped him shrug away his earlier failures against Woods, but also because victory would have enabled him to thumb his nose and say “so there” to an antagonist he claimed had never been his “favourite guy” and who he had accused of having bad manners after the third round.
Though denied by Woods, Garcia insisted he was at the top of his swing when Tiger hauled a fairway wood out of his bag that caused the raucous gallery to cheer loudly because it signalled that their hero was going to attempt a daring escape from the trees on the left of the fairway.
As it was, a distracted Garcia sliced his approach shot and made a bogey while Woods was able to birdie the hole for a two shot swing that enabled him to edge clear of Garcia for the first time in the tournament.
“I’m not going to lie; he’s not my favorite guy to play with,” Garcia said of Woods after that round. “He’s not the nicest guy on tour. We don’t enjoy each other’s company. You don’t have to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.”
Instead it was Woods who was be able to take away sweet memories from famed TPC Sawgrass, a Pete Dye course that since 2001 when he won The Players for the first time, had never been kind to him.
“I hadn’t played really well here since 2000, 2001,” said Woods who had managed only one Top 10 finish here since his win in 2001.
“This golf course has been a little bit tricky over the years, and I’m not the only one who’s struggled with it.”
But more than this, victory by a man who is injury-free once more and seems to have put his domestically-troubled recent past firmly behind him and is heading towards another career peak, marked a new mile-stone in an already illustrious career in that it came quicker than any previous fourth career victory in a season.
It was his seventh win in 22 starts, an astonishing 53rd time in 57 tournaments that he has closed with a win after having at least a share of the lead entering the final round, and it was also his 78th victory overall on the US PGA Tour.
No wonder then that it brought with it his confident smile of old and a bold answer to the question, “Were you surprised?”
“No,” he said with conviction. “I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done. But I’m not.”
It certainly doesn’t look that way and despite missing out in this year’s opening major, the Masters, in April, it looks, more and more, as if he can break his major drought of the last several years, and, still aged 37 and with 14 majors already in the bag, get back into a serious chase of Jack Nicklaus record 18 major titles.
With the world class fields it always attracts and based fact that only a handful of men have ever won it twice, it is not for nothing that The Players is called the “fifth major” and now that Woods has joined that handful and won it for a second time, there seems to be no reason why he shouldn’t start winning the majors again – and perhaps as soon as next months US Open.
This because it will be played at the storied Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania.
Merion, like TPC Sawgrass’ Stadium Course, cannot simply be overpowered.
Both need strategy and clever course management in which every shot has to be hit to the correct place.
Birdie opportunities do exist, perhaps more so than on some other US Open courses, but it needs guile and skill and not raw power to make them.
Woods didn’t use his driver all that often at Sawgrass this week. He preferred hitting conservative shots with the correct shape and angle rather than blasting them long distances.
His final approach at the 18th was a perfect example. It never looked like finding trouble as he coolly drew a 9-iron into position behind the flag.
It has been recalled that he won two majors using a strategy of this nature – the 2006 British Open at Hoylake and the 2007 PGA at Southern Hills.
Can he do it again in view of this year’s developments?
“You know, it’s a great question,” he said after this week’s triumph.
“I’ve never played Merion. It sounds good in theory. But I don’t know,” he said before concluding his answer by adding that he would need to come up with the right game plan to whatever conditions “the golf course gives you”.
You can never be sure if anything in golf. Garcia can confirm that, I am sure. But right now if there is any one man looking like a good bet to win the next major at Merion, love him or not, it has to be Tiger.