By Tim Dahlberg, AP Sports Columnist
MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- Try as he might, even Tiger Woods couldn't control the moment. Head buried on his caddie's shoulder, he stood sobbing on the 18th green at Royal Liverpool thinking about how much his win would have meant to the father who meant so much to him.
Don't blame the guys playing against him at the British Open if they didn't notice. Not that they're unsentimental, but after watching Woods go 72 holes without coming close to missing a shot, they had to be more concerned about other things.
Like figuring out their schedule for next year to make sure they play some tournaments Woods isn't in. Like rehearsing speeches about how they tried hard but still ended up in second place.
Because the ominous feeling on the driving range and in the locker room this week is this: The greatest player in the world may not have even played his greatest golf yet.
"I can see him getting even better and better as each year goes on," former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell said.
That's kind of hard to imagine, given that Woods has won 50 PGA Tour titles and 11 major titles in his first decade on the tour. Take a closer look at what has gone on in Woods' life and with his golf game in the last few years, though, and you begin to get the idea.
Woods tees off Thursday as such a prohibitive favorite in the PGA Championship that some Vegas sports books won't take money on him. In just 10 years he's more than halfway to his goal of topping the 18 major titles Jack Nicklaus won, and many are already calling him the greatest player of all time.
His win at the British Open may have been his most difficult because he had to overcome the death of his father, Earl, and his missed cut at the U.S. Open a month earlier. But Woods' entire career has been about meeting any challenge put before him.
He won his first Masters as a pro, went through two major swing overhauls, embraced married life, and put Phil Mickelson in his place on his way to becoming the richest and most recognized athlete on the planet. In between, he convinced a whole new generation that golf was, indeed, cool.
Woods was so dominant at the British that he spotted the field one club, hitting his driver only once, and still won. At age 30, he's far more secure with himself and more mature than he was five years ago when he went on a run of seven wins in 11 majors -- something many thought would never be matched again.
But could it?
That question was posed to Woods at a news conference this week and it had to be chilling for other players to hear his response:
"As far as comparison, I think it's very similar," he said. "I think I've had some great steps in my career out here so far, and this is certainly one of them. Hopefully, I can keep it going for a while."
Golf fans should hope so, too, because Woods has given them thrills that 20 Retief Goosens couldn't come close to.
Hard to believe it was 10 years ago this summer that Woods was trying to figure out his class load for the fall semester at Stanford. It wasn't until Woods shot 66 in the second round of the British Open as an amateur that summer that he decided turning pro might be a good career move after all.
I was there when he won the Las Vegas Invitational in only his fifth pro tournament, beating Davis Love III in a playoff before a raucous crowd. The 20-year-old was already a phenom when he came into the small press room and sat down in my chair while waiting for Love to complete his interview.
He was reading the story on my computer screen, and I asked him if he liked it.
"I like this," Woods said, pointing to the mention of his $297,000 first prize.
The money would barely be enough now to gas up his yacht or make a payment on his private jet. Sports Illustrated estimated earlier this month that Woods made $97,628,024 last year between earnings and endorsements, and it's only a matter of time before he becomes the first athlete to earn a billion dollars.
Woods doesn't need to play for money anymore, and he doesn't play for fame. He plays because his competitive spirit runs deep, and he plays for history and the legacy he will leave.
As he gets older, he's even begun to reflect on what it is all about.
"A dream come true," Woods said this week. "I did not think that in my wildest dreams I could actually have achieved what I've achieved so far. I've been very lucky."
So have we, for being along for the ride.
It's almost scary to think that the next 10 years could be even better.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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