History favors Woods after hot start

Originally Published: August 13, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski |

CHASKA, Minn. -- As the featured threesome arrived at its final green of the day, a silver-haired PGA Championship official in full blue-blazer attire emerged from just off the fringe. He turned to the swollen gallery around the ninth green and started reading from his note cards.

"From Dublin, Ireland ..." he began, as he quickly introduced 2008 PGA winner Padraig Harrington to the crowd. Warm, polite applause.

"From Austin, Texas ..." he said, this time introducing Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship. Warmer applause.

"And from Windermere, Florida," he said, "1999 ... 2000 ... 2006 ... [is this ever going to end?] and 2007 PGA champion -- Tiger Woods."

By the end, fans were actually laughing at the length of the introduction and the absurdity of those numbers. And here's the scary part: If Woods doesn't suffer loss of muscle memory between now and late Sunday afternoon, he'll leave Hazeltine National Golf Club with a fifth Wanamaker Trophy and his 15th major championship.

"The first round, you can play yourself out of a golf tournament," Woods said. "You certainly cannot win the golf tournament on the first day."

You sure about that? Woods put together a 5-under-par, almost stress-free 67 in the opening round of the PGA Championship. There were no bogeys. No "Star Trek" drives (going where no man has gone before). No four-letter festivals.

"It was easy," said Beem, describing Woods' 18 holes.

Beem kept mentioning how "efficient" Woods was during Thursday's morning round. It was the perfect word. Woods never flirted with any ugly numbers. He kept his drives in Hazeltine's soft fairways (12 of 14). He kept his approach shots on the greens (15 of 18 greens in regulation) and kept his putts to a respectable number (29).

Woods broke a sweat, but only because it was steam-iron hot and Philippines-jungle muggy. Other than that, struggles were kept to a minimum. His round could have been lower had his putter not given him the cold shoulder on about a half-dozen makeable birdie attempts.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesTiger Woods has won all three of the majors in which he has recorded a bogey-free round. He didn't have a bogey in his first round Thursday at Hazeltine.

"Just got to keep plodding along," he said. "Major championships are set up so they're difficult. They bait you into making mistakes."

Yeah, just got to keep plodding along with those, yawn, 67s. Meanwhile, just imagine what the rest of the field is thinking as they see Woods go retro.

For the first time since the 2005 Open Championship, Woods is leading a major after the opening round. He has shared or owned the first-round lead in majors six times and won four of them -- the last four (the '05 Open Championship, the '02 U.S. Open, the '00 PGA and the '00 U.S. Open). And he kills when the calendar reaches July. Since 2005, of his 27 official starts after mid-July, Woods has won 16 of them.

"It's kind of ominous," said Beem, the golf history major.

There are no sure things in golf, but Woods might be the closest thing to a gimme putt. And for a nice change, Woods won't have to weave through second-, third- and fourth-round traffic to move up the leaderboard. He is on top of the leaderboard and he likes it that way.

"And when I'm playing well, I usually don't make that many mistakes," Woods said.

There were a couple of brief encounters with some Hazeltine foliage Thursday, but that was about it for drama. Woods nailed his irons, kept his drives in Minnesota and left a lot of scorch marks on the edges of cups. Do that three more times and he'll win this thing. I'm not saying it will be easy, but it could be.

Less than a week ago, Woods was beating Harrington in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, otherwise known as the Just Give Tiger The Damn Trophy. Now they're in the same pairing again, thanks to the PGA's attention to theatrical detail. They'll be together (along with Beem) on Friday and, at this rate, perhaps during the weekend, too.

Harrington shot a 68, which puts him in second place. He respects Woods; Woods respects him. It's a cool dynamic.

"I think it pushes you," Harrington said. "You have to go to a new level. ... You either go for it -- you either play well or you don't is my attitude. And Tiger brings that out."

When Harrington was winning this tournament last year, Woods was back home trying to ditch his new best friend -- a knee brace. Fresh from surgery, Woods considered the day a success if he could take a few steps without the brace.

"I wasn't very good at it," he said.

So he did his rehab and caught bits and pieces of the PGA Championship on television. He remembers watching the last four or five holes of the final round. That's about it for sentimental PGA journeys.

Woods says 2009 is already a success -- with or without a major championship victory -- and he's right: He can walk without a limp. He's won five times this season. And nobody is making him wear John Daly's pants.

But it's obvious he doesn't want to take the majors oh-fer this year. It's equally obvious that last month's flameout at Turnberry, where he missed a majors cut for only the second time in his career, left a bruise mark.

"I had that nice little rest there after the British Open -- those two days, that's what got me," he said. "I have plenty of energy."

He also has the lead and, for now, control of his game. Not the combination the rest of the field was hoping for.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for You can contact him at Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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