This, people, is what an A-Game looks like: Michael Jordan in the playoffs. Joe Montana in the last two minutes. Secretariat in a saddle. Tiger Woods in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf.
By Gary Van Sickle - Sports Illustrated
The book of Tiger Woods lore is going to be encyclopedia-thick by the time his golf career is over. Last time anybody checked, it was already heftier than your average Tom Clancy novel. What Woods did last November in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf was a vivid reminder why Woods is worth the price of admission. Just about every tournament Woods plays in, he does something amazing, unbelievable or something you've never seen before. Like a 15-shot victory margin in a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. A stiffed iron shot in the darkness on the 72nd hole at Firestone. Four must-make birdies on the final four holes at last year's PGA Championship to have a chance to catch Rich Beem, who nonetheless didn't stumble. Or a 15-under-par performance for two rounds at the Poipu Bay Golf Course, a gorgeous, windswept course that isn't nearly as easy as Woods made it look as he won the PGA Grand Slam for a record fifth straight year.
That's what golf looks like with an A-Game--easy. At the Grand Slam, Woods shot a 61 that looked easy. Easy. While this tournament wasn't filled with suspense about who was going to win, it was packed with drama about whether Woods might birdie every doggone hole, shoot 50-something and possibly leap over a tall building in a single bound. Through no fault of Davis Love, Justin Leonard and Rich Beem, Woods turned the PGA Grand Slam into a mesmerizing one-man show with two days of scintillating golf. Not only was it worth the price of admission, it made you want the video. It was the kind of golf you wanted to own.
"You can fire off all the numbers you want but numbers don't do justice to what he did," Beem said later. "He didn't get anything out of his first round and shot 66. He didn't get everything out of his second round, either. He didn't miss out on a 59. He missed out on a 57."
Let's look at those numbers. Woods shot 66-61, 17-under-par and 14 shots ahead of Love and Leonard, 18 ahead of Beem. While Woods has broken 60 in a practice round--a 59 at home with buddy Mark O'Meara at Isleworth--he's never done it in competition so far. Woods has shot 61 twice--in the aforementioned 2000 NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, and also in the World Cup. "This 61 was better," Woods admitted as he met with a handful of writers in the posh Hyatt Regency adjacent to the Poipu Bay Golf Course. "I really didn't mis-hit a shot. On top of that, you're playing some windy conditions and the greens were pretty grainy, not easy to putt."
This Grand Slam didn't have Slam Dunk written all over it from the start. Woods had just switched drivers in Japan before he came to Kauai, with only fair-to-middling results. When he arrived on the island, he hung out with pal Charles Barkley, who was on site to tape his TNT talk-show, "Listen Up!", and often held court in the hotel lounge. Barkley makes Woods laugh. And shake his head about Barkley's hopeless-hacker, Jack Lemmon-esque, start-and-stop-and-start-again golf swing. "He looks fine for a couple of swings on the range," Woods said. "Then on the first tee, all of a sudden he throws a couple of balks at you. You don't know what to say."
Mix in the postcard scenery of Kauai and the tropical breezes with Sir Charles' wisecracks and the golf could've become an afterthought. Yet this off-season event brings out the best in Woods, who has won $2 million in five trips to this island. "It's one of the greatest places to come because it's such a relaxing environment," he said. "I've always enjoyed it. And every time you come back, it means you had a pretty good year."
It's a vacation atmosphere, really, and Love took full advantage of the opportunity. He brought 19 family members and friends, who stayed to enjoy Thanksgiving on the island. Beem played to the theme, too. He wore floral-patterned Hawaiian shirts outside his pants each round and sported golf shoes hand-painted with hula dancers on the tips. He also flaunted a customized TaylorMade driver that featured red and white flowers on the clubhead. Beem came up with both ideas on his flight last August from Minneapolis, where he'd just won the PGA Championship, to Seattle for the NEC Invitational. The shoes arrived the day before the Grand Slam, just in time. "I just got into the spirit of coming to Hawaii," Beem explained. "It fits my personality."
The colorful accessories also set him up as a human punchline. "He got dressed in the dark," Woods said. About the shoes, Barkley joked, "They had to be free." Said TNT commentator Lanny Wadkins, "He'd better play well. You can't come out looking like that and play like a dog."
Beem added an appropriately festive touch to the event while Woods layered on the gee-whiz golf shots. He wasted little time, eagling the event's second hole after hitting 8-iron to the par-5 green. (Yes, that's 8-iron.) After another birdie at the fourth, he threaded a downwind drive between two bunkers and got it on the front of the green at the fifth hole, a 355-yard par 4. (Yes, that's 355 yards--not a typo this time, either.) He three-putted for par, a rare lapse. Woods got up-and-down from a greenside bunker for a birdie at the par-5 seventh, then lipped out a birdie putt at the eighth, ran another one over the cup's edge at the ninth. Shaking his head after he tapped in, he handed his putter back to caddie Steve Williams and lamented, "I could've shot nothing on the front nine." Actually, he shot 31 with a three-putt and was irritated. Bobby Clampett, reporting for TNT's broadcast, had a scary thought. "Tiger could've shot 26 on the front," Clampett said. "He eagled the second and was in birdie range on every other hole."
Woods felt the same way. When his chip shot stopped on the lip of the cup at the 12th, another birdie denied, he told Williams, "I could be 10-under-par right now," and allowed himself a small laugh. When he made only one birdie on the back nine, then saved par from the back bunker at the 18th for 66, Woods gave the appearance that the game was still on. He had a three-stroke lead over Leonard, who shot 69 despite being baffled by Poipu Bay's grainy, tough-to-read greens. It was, of course, just an illusion. The next day, Woods made four birdies in a row, starting at the fifth hole, making six birdies in the first eight holes to open an eight-shot lead. He watched a 20-footer for birdie and a front-nine 29 stop half-a-roll from going into the cup at the ninth. He did his fake smile and laugh thing, then chided himself. "That was a nice lag," he said.
There was another lipout at the 10th. He sank a 20-foot birdie putt at the 12th, stuck a 9-iron shot to a foot at the 13th, holed an 18-footer at the signature 16th hole, then two-putted from 40 feet for a final birdie at the 18th. As for 59, Woods said, the thought never crossed his mind, although he was probably the only one. "I just got on a roll and it kept going--making shots, aiming at my spots, hitting those spots and knocking down my putts," Woods said.
If it's possible to make a 61 sound dull in the re-telling, Woods came close. But there was nothing dull about it. "It was one of the better rounds I've seen in a long time," Love said afterward in a sweeping understatement.
The 127 posted by Woods was a tournament record, breaking his own mark of 132. The 61 broke Tom Kite's tournament record of 62, set in 1992. It was a straightforward 61 with 11 birdies--six on the front, five on the back--and no bogeys. Had it been match play in the second round, Woods and his 61 would've won 8 and 6 over Leonard, 9 and 8 over Love and Beem. Had it been Woods against the other three players' best ball, Woods would've won the match, 1-up. "We could have played a scramble and had a hard time beating him," Beem said.
Asked about the margin of victory, one less than what Woods won (15) the 2000 U.S. Open by, Beem said, "Obviously, the U.S. Open was different. Those are the greatest players in the world and he's got to beat 156 guys. This was just three of us chumps. Well, we're not chumps, but we all looked like it compared to him."
Leonard jokingly helped Woods line up the six-inch tap-in putt for 61 on the final green, and kept his sense of humor about Tiger's dominating show at the awards ceremony moments later. It was the day before Thanksgiving and he and wife, Amanda, had planned a ski trip to Aspen. "I thought I was going to go on vacation," Leonard told the crowd around the 18th green, "but now I'm going to start practicing on Friday."
Members of the gallery laughed. They'd seen what Leonard had seen: what an A-Game looks like.
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