Commentary

Tiger choke? He can't utter the word

Originally Published: August 15, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHASKA, Minn. -- The question -- and the telling nonanswer -- of the PGA Championship actually came a day earlier, when someone had the nerve to ask Tiger Woods whether he had ever come close to "choking" in a major.

Woods' face tightened. His eyes narrowed. But he said nothing. Instead, there was only a slight, almost undetectable nod sideways. And then he stared, almost glared straight ahead, offering nothing more.

"We'll take that to be a no?" said the news conference moderator.

It wasn't a no, it was annoyance, defiance and maybe a sliver of indignation. The very idea of him gagging away a golf tournament, especially a major, probably repulses him. Think about it: Woods wouldn't even say the word no. It was as if the question wasn't worthy of a verbal answer, even one with a single syllable.

Woods choke? That's like asking Albert Pujols whether he knows which end of a bat to hold. Whether Tom Brady can remember a snap count.

Woods scuffles, struggles and occasionally goes off the reservation with his swing, but he never, ever chokes. At least, not yet, he hasn't. And with a 2-stroke lead going into Sunday's final round of the PGA, he isn't going to start now.

Choking means your mind and nerves have been tasered by the pressure of the moment. Name the last time on a golf course that Woods was overpowered by pressure, by the weight of a situation. Woods is almost always the taserer, not the taseree.

Y.E. Yang, who sits 2 strokes behind El Tigre on the leaderboard, will discover the difference when he spends four-plus hours simmering in the golf Crock-Pot known as a Sunday final pairing with Woods. Tiger turns the temperature dial to Suffer and then lets the heat of a major championship do the rest.

"My first time playing with him, so I'll try not to go over par," Yang said.

The South Korean shot an impressive 67 on Saturday to move to 6 under for the tournament. That's nice. But he was paired with Germany's Martin Kaymer in the third round, when tens of people followed the group. Woods gets that many when he picks lint off his shirtsleeve. Just wait until Yang enters the atmosphere of Planet Tiger.

"He's not an intimidating individual himself," Graeme McDowell said of Woods. "He's actually a really nice guy. … But he does bring a bit of a circus to the group as well, which is kind of hard to deal with."

A bit of a circus? It's three big tents and a 30,000-person gallery. It's sports writers, photographers, TV cameras, sound technicians and more activity than an ant colony.

"I think when you play against Tiger and you're in one of the leader groups, you feel like you can't make any mistakes because you don't expect him to make any," Stewart Cink said. "And if he does make any, you expect him to recover from it. It puts you in a position where you feel like you can't make any, and that's just not a very good mindset to play golf in. That's why … when they're paired with him in the last round of big tournaments and they're in contention, you see guys shooting 72, 73, 74, and you don't see too many 65s. Because I think he just puts people in that mindset where you almost tighten up a little bit."

And this is from Cink, who just won an Open Championship, has six tour victories and still has champagne stains on his clothes from the USA's Ryder Cup celebration. Yang won the Honda Classic earlier in the year, and in 2007 he won the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai -- and Woods was in the field.

"That guy … he knows what he's doing," Padraig Harrington, also at 6 under, said of Yang. "So I wouldn't be too worried about him [Sunday]."

I'm not. Nothing personal, but I think Yang will shoot one of those 74s that Cink was talking about. The circus is worth at least a stroke to Woods.

Just a reminder, but Woods is 14-for-14 when he leads or shares the lead of a major after three rounds. He is 47-of-50 in those situations in his PGA Tour career. That makes him golf's Mariano Rivera.

I'll allow for the 10 percent chance that someone else (Harrington?) outplays Woods on Sunday, but otherwise, it's over. Woods shot a 1-under-par 71 in the third round and did it without a birdie on any of the par-5s. No way that'll happen two days in a row.

"I'm in the same boat as everyone else, but you've got to go out there and execute shots," Woods said. "And that's the fun, and that's the rush and that's the thrill of it."

No player has won at least one major in five consecutive years.

Until Sunday. Until Woods. The circus will leave town with another Wanamaker Trophy.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

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