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Woody Austin could hear the cheers from the Southern Hills gallery on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)
Woody Austin could hear the cheers from the Southern Hills gallery on Sunday. (Photo: Getty Images)

Austin sees his runner-up finish as a big breakthrough

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Woody Austin didn't quite pull off the big upset, but he gave Tiger Woods a tussle on the back nine and posted his best-ever finish in a major. He's already looking forward to both the Presidents Cup and the rest of a rejuvenated career.

By Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.com Senior Correspondent

TULSA, Okla. -- The fist pumps were flying on the back nine at Southern Hills Country Club Sunday afternoon, and why not when the man was making three birdies in a row and clutch pars and playing like a champion.

That Woody Austin did not win the 89th PGA Championship in no way diminishes what he accomplished in the closing hours of the year's final major. Austin gave the unconquerable Tiger Woods a bit of a tussle -- as he promised he would try to do on Saturday night -- and the result was his best finish in a major, second place.

What's more, Austin has to make plans for international travel, including a quick check that his passport is updated. The man who elected to skip the Open Championship because he had played the previous eight weeks looks as smart as the bank teller he used to be. His first top-10 in a Grand Slam event has yielded an automatic berth on the U.S. team in next month's Presidents Cup in Quebec.

Though never before in the manic and unnerving milieu of a major championship battle, Austin didn't blink Sunday when he tried to erase the four strokes that separated him from eventual winner Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world.

The native Floridian who lost some prime years to knee injuries fired a closing 3-under-par 67 in the Southern Hills cauldron, but he came up two shots shy -- which maybe is not the most appropriate word for a man outspoken about his desire to tangle with Woods in a final pairing and about his talents in relation to a man who has 13 majors.

"I refuse to believe that when Tiger plays his best and I play my best that he is that much better than me," said Austin, winner of three PGA TOUR titles. "If I believe that, then I'm done. The difference between us is that he plays at that level more often. That's what I'm building towards. My disappointment comes from not doing that. I'm good enough to do it, and that's why I'm hard on myself."

Indeed, Austin is hard on himself and wears his frustrations on his sleeve, hat, glove, belt, slacks, and
...
um, even his forehead. The signature moment of his career is an often-replayed videotape of Austin beating himself on the noggin with his putter so firmly that the shaft gets bent.

At Southern Hills, he saved the solid swings for an inhospitable golf course.

Thanks mostly to an inspired run on the inward nine that cut a five-stroke deficit to two, Austin, 43, of Derby, Kan., ended up with a 6-under 274 aggregate total to earn his third top-2 finish in his last eight starts. That sterling streak started, by the way, with a victory at the Stanford St. Jude Championship when he overcame a four-stroke deficit to world No. 5 Adam Scott.

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Using resolve and returning to a putting tip from Ben Crenshaw -- gripping the club as lightly as possible without losing control -- Austin turned up the heat on a day that climbed to 102 degrees (and 110 heat index).

After chipping in to save par at the short par-4 10th hole, Austin made three straight birdies starting with a 15-foot curler on 11. At the long 12th, a 25-footer from the fringe found the cup, and Austin pumped his fist several times just as Woods is wont to do. Then came a two-putt birdie at 13, and suddenly Austin was 6 under par and two behind.

Converting pars the rest of the way wasn't good enough to catch Woods, but Austin made a few key saves to hold his position and throw a few more fist-pumps at a crowd that had been expecting Woods to run away with his fourth PGA Championship title.

"I think it's great that Ernie and I didn't let him just coast in," he said.

Austin has never been allowed to coast. He tore up his left knee at the 1987 PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament and was sidelined two years. He made it back to the TOUR to win the Buick Open and become the 1995 Rookie of the Year, but he had to endure a stint on the Nationwide Tour in '98 and another trip to Q-School in 2002 before finally re-establishing his credentials. He hasn't finished lower than 78th on the money list since.

"I said all along ...
I was a pretty good player a long time ago. I just didn't come out of the bank like everybody thought I would. I just got sidetracked," said Austin, whose best previous major finish was a tie for 16th at last year's PGA Championship. "There are only a few of us that our lives just kind of go according to plan.

"Most of us have all of those bumps and peaks and valleys. Unfortunately, I had a few pretty big peaks and valleys, and it's just taken me a little bit longer to," he added. "Like I said, it may be just that at 43 I deal with my nerves better than I did at 32."

Of course, now that he is 43, he admits he feels a sense of urgency to make up for lost time. "Let's face it: unless Father Time is going to do something strange, I'm supposed to start to diminish. So I need to hang on and do the best I can before I start to go."

This PGA Championship was a good starting point for the rest of his career.

"There's no question it's a breakthrough for me," Austin said. "I had never been in this position before. So I can't say it's nothing but a positive. I'd like to know how I did it, to be totally honest. But I'm going to take this as far as I can."

Austin prides himself on being "a regular guy. I tell my friends if I ever change they have permission to beat me upside the head," he said. He devoted some of his down time this summer to playing in a recreational softball league. "Beer 30" was the name of the team, and Austin was something of a utility infielder. He was a promising young baseball player until he first messed up his knee when he was 11 years old.

He's one guy who is going to relish the team atmosphere of the Presidents Cup and the direct competition that goes with the various match-play formats.

"I've always wanted to be in one of those things," Austin said with a gleam in his eyes after bumping Lucas Glover off the 10th and final automatic berth via the U.S. points standings.

"I think my personality suits that kind of competition. I'd like to think that my personality is a lot like Tiger's -- very out there, very emotional, and I think in that format, in a team format, in a two-man or one-on-one, I like the idea. I like the competition, one-on-one ...
I like looking right at you when I'm playing you, and I think that's going to be a lot of fun."

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