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Tiger Woods needs to win the PGA Championship to truly consider his season a success. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Tiger Woods needs to win the PGA Championship to truly consider his season a success. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Woods' toughest rival at the PGA could be himself

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Tiger Woods arrived at the PGA Championship on a roll, says Jim Litke, and Southern Hills is one of those 1930s-era Midwestern classics that he loves. Given how the pieces are falling into place, he wonders if anyone can keep pace.

By Jim Litke, AP Sports Columnist

After just four holes, there was no longer any question who would win, only by how many.

One, at the end of a soggy test of survival?

Five, in a runaway?

More?

For anybody who didn't take Tiger Woods and the over Sunday at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, well, there's still next weekend.

The PGA Championship begins Thursday at Southern Hills, one of those 1930s-era Midwestern classics that, like Firestone, Woods absolutely loves. And he likes it even more, no doubt, after dropping by for a practice round last week and finding out that the two greens he commented on in June have already been rebuilt.

It's also the year's final major, one of the four championships Woods needs to win for his season -- he already has four PGA TOUR wins and the top spot on the money list -- to be considered a success.

Woods is never better than when he has a score to settle, and his beef at Bridgestone was with one of his two playing partners, Rory Sabbatini. In a statement that's as close as golfers get to woofing, Sabbatini lost a one-stroke lead to Woods in the final round of the Wachovia Championship in early May and said a few days later, "the funny thing is after watching him play on Sunday, I think he's more beatable than ever."

Which is to say not very. Spotting Sabbatini the same one-shot deficit he had at Wachovia, Woods proceeded to play Firestone the way he always does. He grabbed the lead at No. 4 with his third birdie of the day, widened it to six strokes by the turn after chipping in at No. 9, and won by eight -- the only player under par for the tournament -- thanks to a 5-under 65.

Woods won for the sixth time -- his second three-peat in Akron -- and afterward, the closest he came to acknowledging Sabbatini's remarks got under his skin was to say, "Well, the whole idea is just -- everyone knows how Rory is, and I just go out there and just let my clubs do the talking."

Woods unnerves rivals like Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong, the athletes with whom he's most often compared, did. But Jordan and Armstrong often made it personal, making examples out of people who challenged their dominance. Unlike basketball and cycling, though, golf is rarely a team sport. Woods has no one to back him up when he's having an off day, or an entire tournament for that matter, and no way to slow down an opponent who gets hot.

One or both of those factors figured prominently in the first three majors of 2007. Despite hanging close to the lead and even holding it briefly during the final round, Woods never put enough heat on Zach Johnson or Angel Cabrera to force them out of their comfort zones at the Masters or U.S. Open, respectively. Neither did anyone else. At the Open Championship, he never got close enough to Sergio Garcia or eventual winner Padraig Harrington to take advantage when both briefly faltered.

The difference between Woods and everyone else is that when motivated, he doesn't need any help. Once he got dialed in at Firestone, it became less about punishing Sabbatini than reminding him and the rest of the field of that. On the back nine, without no one threatening and Woods playing strictly for pars, he seemed to amuse himself by picking out the safest landing spots on the greens but adding a degree of difficulty by spinning the ball back, or to the left or right depending on the breaks, to get there.

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CBS analyst Nick Faldo, himself a six-time major winner, became so impressed with those course management skills at one point that he began mapping out the shots and calling them for Woods before he hit them. Soon after, David Feherty, another former player handling the on-course reporting, wondered out loud whether a moment of silence wasn't appropriate for the rest of the field: "Maybe they ought to get together and just say, 'Uncle.'

The cool thing is that like Sabbatini, the rest of Woods' opponents won't be bullied at the PGA Championship, at least not until Woods demonstrates it's going to be one of those tournaments where the only person who can beat him is himself. Johnson and Cabrera took a different tack in crunch time than most of Woods' past rivals have, avoiding risks and shifting the burden to Woods to see if he could conjure up his familiar magic in the majors.

It's not the most heroic route. But if anybody is still within striking distance of Woods when next Sunday rolls around, he'd be wise to follow it.

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

©2007 PGA/Turner Sports Interactive. All Rights Reserved.