By Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist
MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) -- The greatest front-runner in the history of sports was standing over a 10-footer for birdie and even though it was only the first hole, playing partner and co-leader Luke Donald couldn't bear to watch.
Tiger Woods has that effect on a lot of people.
Donald tried staring off in the distance first, beyond the green and down the second fairway, then over at the tee to his left. Finally, he dropped his gaze and locked in on his shoes. A heartbeat later, Donald's worst fears were confirmed by a roar from the gallery.
There were still 17 holes left to play Sunday afternoon, but Donald already knew what everybody else scattered around the course would learn a moment later, when another red number popped up alongside Woods' name on the leader board.
The PGA Championship was over.
For the 12th time in as many tries, Woods left the clubhouse in a major with at least a share of the 54-hole lead and picked up the trophy upon his return.
"I felt like once I took the lead there," Woods recalled about No. 1, "if I just played the holes correctly, played the par 5s well, then there's no reason I couldn't maintain the lead."
Like Donald, his opponents knew it, too. A day earlier, in fact, mindful of Woods' perfect record as a closer, a handful of them lingered near the 18th green, hoping Donald's birdie putt would drop so the Englishman would have the final-day lead all to himself. When it didn't, a tough, up-and-coming Australian named Geoff Ogilvy said what a lot of them were thinking: Even Woods is bound to kick one away some day.
"You know he's not going to go his whole career, hopefully," Ogilvy said, then paused to let the laughter die down, "leading after three rounds and winning."
No sooner had he given voice to that sentiment than a few other golfers seized on it like some kind of mantra.
"There's always a time to stop the streak," Mike Weir said, "so, hopefully, I can do it."
"He'll have people expecting him to win," echoed Donald, "so maybe I can use that to my advantage and just kind of sneak by without anyone noticing and pick up the trophy tomorrow."
No such luck.
A month ago at the British Open, though the course and the conditions couldn't have been more different, Woods destroyed his competition the same way.
At Royal Liverpool, he had to hit irons off most tees and his approaches off fairways so parched that they were as hard as the runways at nearby John Lennon Airport. Over there, it was all about low-trajectory shots and controlling how the ball rolled, figuring which angles would keep him out of bunkers and yield the straightest putts across rock-hard greens.
Here at Medinah Country Club, he teed off with fairway woods to cut the holes down to a manageable length, then ripped divots the size of a toupee from the lush fairways to make sure those high-flying darts he threw stuck close to the flag.
The result in both places: 18-under, and another piece of hardware for the trophy case back home.
But Woods has won majors by grinding out pars, by beating back challenges from a familiar cast of characters -- anybody remember the other names of the so-called "Big Five" from a few years ago? -- and holding off guys having the round of their life, like Bob May at the PGA Championship a half-dozen years ago.
There have been only a handful of athletes who just can't be beat and Woods hardly suffers in any comparison with the only two of this era, Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong. By winning his 12th major, he leaves Walter Hagen behind and only Jack Nicklaus and his 18 majors ahead, and the day Woods breezes past the Golden Bear seems less a matter of if than how soon.
When Woods won here in 1999, it was only his second major and the last challenger to fall away was a young Sergio Garcia. Since then, he's exposed one pretender to his throne after another -- Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and most recently, Phil Mickelson (answer to the Big Five question above). And it's only getting harder identifying the next golfer willing to take him on.
In Woods' 12 wins from the front, something like five dozen opponents have started the final day within five shots of the lead and less than 10 have come back with a round in the 60s. The aggregate score for the group, in fact, is right around 73. Donald became Exhibit A on this Sunday by shooting 74.
"You know," Donald said, "he could have made four or five bogeys out there, but he only made one in the end. He just kind of willed the ball in the hole."
The more dominant Woods has become, the more often he gets asked whether he's beating the field that badly, or the field is simply beating itself. He got that question one more time.
"I'm not going to answer," Woods said. "I like the way things are now."
Which is exactly what has everybody else so nervous.
"It will happen eventually," Garcia said. "It's going to happen. I mean, he's not going to be 68 years old and in the final round of a major and tied for the lead and he wins.
"It's going to happen, eventually," the Spaniard repeated, as if to convince himself. "We'll see when."
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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