By Grant Boone, Special to PGA.com
MEDINAH, Ill. -- Not so long ago, in a galaxy and golf course not far away, the young phenom seemed mortal. At the 1999 PGA Championship here at Medinah, Tiger Woods hadn't yet become Darth Major, ruthlessly sealing the deal with every 54-hole lead. In fact, Woods' star had lost a bit of its luster since rising brilliantly at the Masters two years prior, a span of 10 major championships without winning. Holding onto a nine-shot third-round lead, as he did in Augusta, was one thing. How would he handle a share of the top spot going into the final round? Just as well, history tells us. Tiger's even-par 72 beat fellow competitor Mike Weir badly and Sergio Garcia by one. Seven years later, Tiger's now 11-for-11 with at least joint custody of first place going into the final round of a major, which he has today with Luke Donald.
If history repeats itself, Tiger Woods will lay waste to Medinah and win his second consecutive major, third PGA Championship, fourth major since last April, fifth when at least 7 under par after 36 holes, 12th overall. You get the idea.
The only history Luke Donald has going for him is Halley's Comet, which fellow Englishman Edmond Halley -- using some fancy mathematical mumbo jumbo -- deduced would appear every 76 years. It's been precisely that long since Tommy Armour in 1930 became the last subject of the United Kingdom to win the PGA Championship. In search of his first major title, Donald's won twice in the States but neither came with Woods in the field. No matter how you crunch the numbers, Tiger's the prohibitive favorite going into Sunday's final round.
Woods and Donald broke away from maybe the most claustrophobic leaderboard in major championship history to take the joint lead at 14 under par. At one point Saturday, it seemed nearly everyone on the property had a share of the lead, including the lady selling Lemon Chills at the turn. Of the 70 players who made the cut, 10 of them -- one-seventh! -- were tied for first at minus-8 roughly 45 minutes into the leaders' third rounds. But by day's end, Woods and Donald were two better than Mike Weir, and only three other players -- Geoff Ogilvy, Shaun Micheel, and Sergio Garcia -- were even within four of the lead.
In fact, for a good chunk of the third round, it looked like the PGA was gonna party like it's 1999. Woods and Weir, who played in the final group on Sunday that year at Medinah, each shot 65 Saturday to establish a new course record. Sergio Garcia, who in '99 scissor-kicked his way into the hearts of golf fans everywhere, was at it again, shooting 67 to get within four of the lead. Even Donald was around that August, albeit as a college student at nearby Northwestern where he won the NCAA Championship and national player of the year honors.
Saturday actually felt a little like Animal House, and not just because of Tiger. The gallery could've passed for frat brothers as they cheered Donald around Medinah, incessantly shouting "Luuuuuke!" as their hero just as incessantly kept pouring in birdies. Donald's reward for shooting 66 from a share of the second-round lead is a date with the best player of this era and one who keeps creeping closer to becoming the greatest of all time.
It only seems like Woods has been a heavy favorite to win every major since 1997. Make no mistake, there have been stretches of his career in which he was not the best player in a major championship field. Now is not one of those times. Saturday's 65 was flawless, save for a three-putt bogey at 16, perhaps Medinah's last-ditch attempt to remind Tiger it's not supposed to be this easy. He hit 11 of 14 fairways and missed just a single green. Of greater concern for the rest of the field? It wasn't exactly like Woods was bouncing in ricochets off of trash cans and sprinkler heads. He actually took 30 putts, several of which were tap-ins after near birdies or eagles. (Side note: If Tiger finishes off his 12th major championship, expect him to pay tribute to his good friend, Darren Clarke, whose wife, Heather, died of breast cancer last Sunday.)
Obviously, it's never as easy as Tiger often makes it look. There are, for example, four major champions populating the four groups that go out in front of Woods. Someone like Phil Mickelson, with a 40-minute head start, could post a low number and hope the Windy City lives up to its billing. That, of course, is providing Mickelson can quit hitting it further left than a Chicago mayor. In his redesign of Medinah, Rees Jones took out approximately 300 trees. Mickelson appears determined to remove the rest with just his driver alone. He was 4 under through 7 Saturday but played the final 11 holes in even par to shoot a 68 and fall two shots further behind.
As if they needed the deck more decidedly stacked against them, the rest of the field can chew on the knowledge that the last 10 winners of the PGA Championship have come from the last group of the final round, which today means Woods or Donald.
May the force be with you, Master Luke, as the British Empire attempts to Strike Back at 75 years of PGA futility. Maybe you'll see Halley's Comet and your own star will rise. But beware of saber rattling, however light. Because in these present Star Wars, you're not alone: Darth Major is everyone's daddy.
Grant Boone is a husband, father, golf broadcaster, and sports journalist based in Abilene, Texas. His column appears on PGA.com each Wednesday and every day during major championships and other big events. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect those of PGA.com or The PGA of America.
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