Four weeks ago in this particular slice of cyberspace, after Tiger Woods gave the field a wedgie at Torrey Pines, I offered the notion that golf is far too fickle a mistress for The Chosen One to win the Grand Slam this year.
After pumping that baby O.B., can I get a mulligan?
And after witnessing six matches of scientific approach shots, chip shots executed with the deftness of a locksmith and bloodless putt after bloodless putt after bloodless putt – in the middle of this sentence, he just made another 15-footer, center cut – it's time for us to go Barack Obama on Tiger and the Slam:
Yes, he can.
On the morning after the Oscars, let's give Tiger the Irving G. Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award for always making us re-define our expectations and achieve new parameters on our enjoyment of his glory, from the three down after 13 win over J.B. Holmes in the first round, to Sunday's 8 and 7 win over Stewart Cink in the Match Play final. Cink was last seen getting scraped off the Arizona highway, next to a flattened possum on the interstate.
Match play always brings out the best in Tiger's mind. The mental part of Tiger's act has never, ever been in question. He's the most ruthless competitor of our time, someone entirely comfortable with driving a knife into the vital organs of his foes, then shaking hands and speaking eloquently of the carcass he left behind. Meanwhile, the buzzards descend on the vanquished, while Tiger changes shoes in the parking lot and drives off in a courtesy SUV.
In that respect, Earl and Tida done good. They raised the lad to drink everyone else's milkshakes, and then go give a gracious acceptance speech.
It's when Tiger's physical tools are in sync with his savage mental outlook that it's Katy-bar-the-door time. Golf is too difficult a game to constantly have your swing clicking, and your putter clicking, at the same time, forever and ever. That accounts for majors like the '06 Masters, when Tiger tried so hard (some would say too hard) to give his dying father one final gift and couldn't make a putt. It accounts for majors like the '06 U.S. Open when Tiger's swing was understandably rusty after Earl's passing, and he sprayed the ball all over Winged Foot en route to missing the cut.
What we've now seen in the past five events worldwide – all wins – is a Tiger whose mechanics are screamingly precise. With rare exceptions, he isn't launching tee shots to places where you need a GPS to find his ball. Almost unanimously, his approach shots from the short grass land in favorable places on the green – long a Tiger staple.
And then there's the putter.
There is an insider's way of analyzing Tiger's putting, and it goes something like this:
Oh … my … Lord.
The kid hasn't missed a putt since before cute little Sam Alexis was born, it seems. The Baby Tigress doesn't even know what it's like to see Daddy miss a putt. We've all seen basketball players get into those grooves where they rip cord on every flick of the wrist. It's the only sports comparison for what Tiger is doing on the dance floors these days. The Tiger-MJ comparisons are, frankly, pretty tired by now, but the only sporting analogy appropriate for Tiger's putting the last six months is the Jordan shrug-the-shoulders barrage of 3s against Portland in the 1992 NBA Finals.
Tiger's already perfect fundamentals in putting seem even more perfect right now. The squared shoulders, the steady head, the metronomic stroke, the exquisite reads… Byron Nelson once said Tiger read greens better than any man who ever lived. It all adds up to buried putt after buried putt after buried putt.
And to think, he was nearly Peter O'Malley-ed by J.B. Holmes in the first round. All Holmes had to do was halve three of the final five holes in his match with Tiger, and he'd have slayed the dragon. But that's the thing: This dragon breathes lethal fire when he's backed into his cave, and when his putter is still on his side. Ever seen a dragon use a putter? It's quite a thing.
Nobody's cooler than Tiger over a 15-footer for the win. Well, maybe one guy is cooler. That would be Jack Nicholson at the Oscars. The guy has pulled front-row seats every year since "Five Easy Pieces." That he still scored front-row seats in the year of "The Bucket List" speaks to his utter coolness. Must be the wraparound shades.
At any rate, combine all that Tiger brought to Match Play, and you have a debilitating effect on the field, which leads to …
Mulligan of the week
• Aaron Baddeley, at age 26, is finally worthy of our attention. When the kid came out of Australia at age 18 with a golf bag featuring the words BADDS.COM stitched on the side, he seemed fairly unsympathetic.
First, if you haven't won on the PGA Tour, don't blaze your web site on the side of your golf bag.
Second, it was so long ago, we all were working with dial-up modems, and it took like five minutes to access BADDS.COM just to see the web site of a teenager who had never won on Tour.
Anyway, time passes, we all get wireless and Baddeley turns into a darn gutsy golfer. He's worthy of our attention now. The golf shots he hit in his 20-hole match with Tiger oozed with courage, oft times stuffing it inside of Tiger when the heat was on, late. Tiger was playing great, too. Baddeley was just as good, if not better.
For his spectacular effort, he earned not one, but two chances to close out Tiger. We'll cut him a break on the slider on 18, because it was a tough putt.
But on the 19th hole, Baddeley had 10 feet to beat Tiger in a career-defining match. And Baddeley is a beautiful putter, the sort of magician on the greens who dies his putts, like Crenshaw, in the heart. Yet, he missed.
Call it the force field Tiger puts on his foes. Call it the pressure getting to Baddeley. Call it an inexplicable break in the green. Either way, we've spent years and years watching Tiger make putts like that – and watching his opponents miss them. Tiger isn't just the best. He makes others respect the fact that he's the best, then he watches them wilt in his presence at the most important times.
Give Baddeley a mulligan on that 10-footer. In fact, he gave himself one. He dropped the ball down in the same spot after he missed it. In his second try, he made it. Of course he did. It wasn't to beat Tiger. Tiger wouldn't have it any other way.
Broadcast moment of the week
• "I can't physically affect them, all I know is, I can put a lot of heat on 'em if I play well." – Tiger Woods, post-victory in NBC broadcast booth with Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller, on his demoralizing effect on foes.
I cannot remember Tiger making a visit to a broadcast booth at an event in at least eight years. Swear to God, the last one I remember was his visit with Jimmy Roberts during the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when Roberts royally ticked off Tiger by asking him about his cuss words after the errant tee shot on 18 to finish off his second round.
It is a measure of how comfortable Tiger is with his game right now that he visited Hicks and Miller and put on the headset. Usually, when a network wants Tiger in the booth after a win, the answer is pretty much something like this:
Network: Tiger, can you give us a few minutes in the booth, with the headset on and all that?
Steve Williams, Tiger's caddie: Tiger left 10 minutes ago, mate. Eat our dust.
He gave a darn good turn in the booth, too. Relaxed, he talked about how he hadn't yet seen his winning putt against Baddeley and how his Mom has turned into a softy as a grandma. His positive impression was backed up by Cink, who gave an interview to Roger Maltbie noting that Tiger, at 32, is more mature now, more in control.
All in all, pretty good week for T-Dub. It served as a stark contrast to our next category …
Scorecard of the week
• 69-73-78, tie-72nd – Michelle Wie, LPGA Fields Open.
Ever since I met her during the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge when she was 13 and had the prettiest swing you'd ever seen, I've been a Michelle Wie fan. When she got knocked by everyone for saying she dreamed of winning the Masters, I defended her. Wouldn't you want your little girl to dream, too? Plus, with that golf swing, the sky seemed the limit.
Her early returns were staggering, too. By the time she was 16, she had seven top-10s in women's majors, including three thirds and a second. Even the big boys said she was different. Ernie Els, who served as the inspiration for her nickname, "The Big Wiesy," said: "Give her a couple of years and she'll be on the PGA Tour." He wasn't alone.
Then, 2007 happened, and it was horrible: the withdrawals, the stiffing of Annika, the lame excuses, the injuries, the firing of the caddies, the agents bailing … it was all so, so wrong. The critics were justified: She had taken on too much and collapsed under the weight.
So imagine my surprise to tune in this week and see the Big Wiesey firing a tidy 69 to start her '08 season, fresh from the campus of Stanford University.
Alas, I tuned in on Friday to see her blade a chip like a 22-handicapper, then spray a tee shot so far off track she was near a busy road trying to figure out her lie. Here's how far off her ball flight was: Random cyclists were passing her, as were cars that had nothing to do with the tournament. Her golf ball almost left the premises. I sighed and realized it just may never happen for the Big Wiesy.
I didn't even pay attention when she shot 78 to finish dead last in the field among those who made the cut.
Where do we go from here?
• Farewell, highly-skilled golfers, from your West Coast base of fans. We enjoy your visit every year, from paragliders above Torrey Pines, to retirees in Palm Desert, to drunken fraternity boys in Phoenix, to Danny Gans doing Kermit the Frog at Pebble, to Tiger road kill in Match Play.
We wish you well on the Bermuda greens of Florida, and we'll welcome you back to California for that U.S. Open in June.
You know, the one that Tiger will win.