Open win Tiger's ultimate tribute to Earl

Updated: July 26, 2006, 12:38 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

HOYLAKE, England -- Up in the Great Clubhouse in the Sky, Earl Woods is loving this one.

Got himself a whiskey tumbler in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. Got tears rolling down his cheeks. Got something to say to everyone around him at the 19th hole: "That's my boy. That's how I taught him to play thinking man's golf."

Tiger Woods
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTiger Woods, with caddie Steve Williams, could not contain his emotions after winning the Open.
Tiger Woods is the boy Earl shaped into the greatest athlete on the planet, and the boy who just took another significant step toward being the greatest golfer in the planet's history. Earl said goodbye to Tiger for the last time in May, when cancer claimed him. After two months of painful adjustment to life without his guiding light, tearful Tiger turned this British Open into the ultimate tribute to Pops.

That's because Woods' third Open championship, at Royal Liverpool, was an intellectual masterpiece. The possessor of jaw-dropping physical talent won with his wits. More than any of his previous 10 major titles, this was a triumph of the mind.

And nobody did more to mold Tiger's brilliant mind than his dad, who drilled him on the mental game as early as age 4.

"He would have been very proud, very proud," Tiger said, not long after loosing an emotional gusher on the 18th green following the first victory his father did not see. "He was always on my case about thinking my way around the golf course and not letting emotions get the better of you, because it's so very easy to do in this sport. Just use your mind to plot your way around the golf course, and if you had to deviate from the game plan, make sure it's the right decision to do that.

"He was very adamant I play like that my entire career."

This was a career highlight for thinking his way around the golf course. Tiger Woods changed before our very eyes this tournament, adding new elements to his seemingly limitless virtuosity.

The massive hitter -- who forced Augusta friggin' National to change its layout in an effort to counteract his force off the tee, the guy whose length spawned the practice of "Tiger-proofing" courses -- transformed himself into a plucky, wily, short-knocker. Ladies and gentlemen, Tiger Woods as Fred Funk.

For all but a single swing over four rounds, Woods disdained the driver that helped him overpower the sport. This is like Nolan Ryan shelving his fastball, Larry Bird eschewing jump shots, John Elway boycotting the bomb. And it was an easy decision to make.

Swing coach Hank Haney said Tiger decided all of two holes into his first practice round, on July 15, to leave the show-off power swinging to the other guys. Drives were rolling 350-plus yards through baked fairways and winding up in bad places. He'd win this one with precision and patience.

"Of course, if you're not a great long-iron player," Haney said, "you can't play that strategy."

Woods, who hits long irons that should be set to music, committed to hitting 2-irons and 3-woods off the tee to avoid bunkers and long grass. The guy whose aura was built upon intimidating length checked his ego, letting his playing partners blow drives 100 yards past his -- then hitting better shots into the greens and rolling better putts.

He stuck with the game plan even after a pedestrian third-round 71 that failed to put the tournament away. Armchair swing coaches insisted that, for the first time in 11 tries, Woods would finally lose a major from ahead -- that he was putting too much pressure on his long irons and putting. Woods disagreed, saying that the Saturday wobble was nothing a steadier putter could not remedy.

"Tiger never had any doubt he had the right game plan," Haney said.

Tiger was right. As usual.

When it was over, Woods' shrewd reinvention of his game might have sent Big Bertha sales into a tailspin and spurred a run on 2-irons. This is what his short-and-straight strategy produced:

• A score of 18-under par, just a stroke off his own Open record total.
• An unbroken run as leader or co-leader from Friday morning through Sunday evening.
• Eighty-six percent of fairways hit, tops in the tournament.
• Eighty-one percent greens in regulation, second-best in the tournament.
• A bulletproof final-round 67, tied for the best score of the day, while alleged contenders Sergio Garcia (appropriately dressed like a lemon), Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Angel Cabrera weakly shrank from the Sunday fight.
• A comfortable two-stroke victory over another guy dealing with the recent loss of a parent, gutty Chris DiMarco.

The inner gagger seems to come out in golfers confronted by Tiger in majors, but not so DiMarco. The last two times Woods has been tested on Sunday in a major, DiMarco did the work -- forcing him into a playoff in the 2005 Masters, then making him work on the back nine here.

When DiMarco holed a miraculous 50-foot par putt on the 14th hole, the roar could be heard on the 13th green, where Woods was tapping in for par. With his lead whittled from three strokes to one and DiMarco refusing to buckle, Woods went into terminator mode.

Until that point, Woods' most stubborn adversary was the camera clickers in the gallery. On at least a half-dozen occasions, he had to back off a shot after someone snapped a picture. Caddie Steve Williams spent an inordinate amount of time pleading with fans to holster their camera phones.

"We've never seen anything like this before," Woods said.

But Earl Woods taught his son how to focus through distractions, rolling balls at him while he putted and squawking during his backswing. A charging DiMarco and an intrusive gallery were not going to stop the clampdown Tiger laid on the tourney down the stretch.

After DiMarco's galvanizing par, Woods birdied the next three holes. He threw lasers at the pin on the par-4 14th and the par-3 15th for short birdies, then lagged his eagle putt into tap-in range on 16. That drained the drama from the event and, undoubtedly, left DiMarco wondering what it takes to beat the tour's resident superhuman.

"He's got an uncanny ability, when somebody gets close to him, to just turn it up another level," said DiMarco, whose mom, Norma, died suddenly on July 4. "I made a great putt for par, which really pumped me up, and he turns around and birdies 14, 15 and 16. It's just -- it's hard to catch him."

The only thing that caught him, in the end, was the memory of Earl.

When it was over, Tiger showed us something else we'd never seen from him before: genuine, uncorked, shoulder-heaving public emotion. A guy who so often appears to us as a golfing automaton flat bawled, first in the arms of Williams, then in the arms of his wife, Elin.

It was an endearing display of humanity from someone who normally does a fine imitation of a Vulcan. In that moment, every one of us who has lost a parent could achingly identify with Tiger Woods.

"I've never done that," he acknowledged. "You know me. ... I guess I'm kind of the one who bottles things up a little bit and moves on, tries to deal with things in my own way. But at the moment it just came pouring out."

Tiger scored two firsts here in his legendary career: He won without his father and he won without his driver. Among all of his accomplishments, that made this title unique. Asked whether his celebration might be more special than usual, Tiger nodded and patted the Claret Jug to his right.

"This jug will be filled up, I'll tell you that," he said. "Beverage of my choice, and not just once."

In the Great Clubhouse in the Sky, Earl Woods will drink to that.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.