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Monday, July 24, 2006
Long irons plus Sergio = Tiger

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Poor Chris DiMarco. He can't even out-destiny Tiger Woods.

Tiger, of course, denied DiMarco his first major championship when he beat DiMarco, birdie to near-birdie, on the first playoff hole of the 2004 Masters.

Tiger did it again Sunday at the British Open, but this time the emotional stakes were much higher.

DiMarco lost his mother to a heart attack on July 4 while she and his father were on vacation in Colorado. DiMarco said after Saturday's 69 that he was destined to win. His group's scorer Saturday was named Norma, his mom's name. He said he had run across only three or four Normas in his life.

So DiMarco felt "divine intervention," as if his mom were out there with him.

Tiger Woods
Tiger let his emotions after wrapping up his 11th career major.

But late Sunday afternoon, poor DiMarco wound up being asked on ABC what Tiger must be feeling as he made an emotional victory walk up the 18th fairway. Tiger lost his father, Earl, on May 3 after a long illness.

You almost expected DiMarco to say, "Gosh, no disrespect to Tiger or his late father, but my mom just died unexpectedly less than three weeks ago."

Instead, DiMarco answered by saying how he felt about losing his mom. Good for him.

Moments later, Tiger was sitting in the same ABC chair talking about how his caddie, Steve Williams, had said coming up 18, "This one's for Pops," and about how, after tapping in for a two-shot win, the pent-up emotion just "flowed" out of him.

As he and "Stevie" hugged, Tiger wouldn't let go, burying his head in his caddie's shoulder and bawling as the big, burly Williams tried awkwardly to comfort him with pats on the back. After what seemed like two minutes, Williams guided Tiger up to his wife, Elin, who did a much better job of hugging her sobbing husband.

Poor DiMarco.

Instead of winning this one for Norma, he had to watch Tiger win it for Earl. Or who knows, maybe because of Earl. Taken to the Shakespearean extreme, you almost wondered whether Earl's ghost had been more powerful than Norma's.

That's beyond my grasp. I believe Tiger was destined to win this British Open only because of where it was played and with whom he played.

The where was Royal Liverpool, a strange old relic whose baked brown fairways, or runways, were faster than its bumpy brown-spotted greens. The expectation was that Tiger would overpower this outdated little pasture with his Sasquatch, driving the ball over the fairway bunkers and on or near lots of par-4 greens. Yes, the easier holes were protected by gimmicky out-of-bounds lines, called cops. But like at St. Andrews, Tiger's home away from home, there were none of the trees that ate his wayward drives as he missed the U.S. Open cut at Winged Foot.

But Tiger Woods made an astonishing decision during his practice rounds on a course he had never played. He decided not to use his driver! Yes, other top players chose to use more 3-woods to keep tee shots from rolling into trouble on some holes. But no one except Tiger took the driver completely out of his game plan.

Tiger wound up hitting his driver once -- during Thursday's first round -- and, as playing partner and ABC commentator Nick Faldo said, "Even that was a bad idea."

The guess here is that Tiger's decision was based not on strategy but on confidence. He simply doesn't have any with the big stick in his hands. His swing coach, Hank Haney, has encouraged him to hit more drivers than ex-coach Butch Harmon did. But during a practice round, Tiger remembered how great he used to be with a 2-iron off the tee.

Destiny struck him like lightning.

Sergio Garcia
While Sergio and others used drivers -- and found sand traps -- Tiger stuck to irons off the tees.

Tiger Woods returned to playing golf instead of home run derby. No more bomb it, find it, extract it, and get it up and down for birdie or par.

No one in the world can hit long irons as consistently and accurately as this man. In fact, he's so great at it that he was able to spot playing partners 20 or 30 yards off the tee -- Sergio Garcia outdrove him nearly 100 yards on Sunday's fourth hole -- and still blow by them on the scorecard. Tiger can cut or draw a 2-iron better than most low handicappers can hit a wedge.

And he was hitting almost all his second shots off the short grass. He led the field in fairways hit, as well as in course management and satisfaction.

Oh, the 2-irony.

The man who put golf on the pop culture map with his interplanetary tee shots finally broke out of his slump by keeping his driver in the silo. Tiger rediscovered his inner golfer, the nerdy little guy nicknamed "Urkel" -- after the bespectacled "Family Matters" character -- by his Stanford teammates when he was a freshman. "Urkel" loves to think his way around the course, inventing shots, choking up on the club, and using fades or draws to hold long irons against crosswinds.

Neither Mr. Hogan nor Mr. Nicklaus ever put on a better four-round display of long-iron shot making in a major championship than Mr. Woods just did. Was it ever a joy to watch him hit those "stingers" off the tee again. Who among us can take divots on purely struck 2-irons, let alone hit them high or low on command?

For that matter, the most boring, conservative U.S. Open winners -- Hale Irwin, Curtis Strange, Lee Janzen -- never lag-putted with greater feel than Tiger did during this British.

So why try to stomp the field with a Big Foot driver when you can play golf the way this man can? Of course, this probably won't boost sales of Nike's Sasquatch, although I paid top dollar for mine and will continue to bomb away with it. I carry no 2, 3 or 4 iron because I couldn't hit them to save my life. Each has been replaced with lifesaving hybrids, which are so much easier to hit they should be illegal.

That's why Tiger's iron-willed British victory was all the more impressive.

But sheathing his Sasquatch was only part of his destiny. Fate also paired him with Faldo for the first two rounds (when Tiger shot 67 and 65) and with Garcia for the final round (when Tiger shot 67). Tiger, who wears red on Sundays, sees red when he sees Faldo or Garcia.

What a break it was to be inspired by them.

Just as Tiger is golf's greatest front-runner -- he still hasn't lost a major when leading after three rounds -- no star in sports will carry a grudge longer. Names on Tiger's grudge list are carved forever, like winners on the Claret Jug.

Two years ago at the Buick Open, Tiger hit a terrible second shot on the par-5 final hole with that rebuilt swing of his. And Faldo, in the ABC booth, said what he's paid to say.

"He completely fanned it," Faldo said.

What an unforgivable slight.

For that, Tiger treated Faldo so coolly at Royal Liverpool that the poor man might have suffered frostbite during England's heat wave. Faldo is 49 and barely plays competitive golf, yet Tiger wanted to humiliate and annihilate him on the scorecard.

This was so childish, so classless ... so Jordanesque. Michael Jordan often turned innocent quotes from rival players or coaches into hell-to-pay insults.

Then again, Sergio deserves every stroke of Tiger's wrath. As a 19-year-old at the 1999 PGA, "El Nino" made cocky statements about how Tiger finally had a rival. Then he managed to turn the crowd against Tiger and even dared to shake his fist at Tiger after making a final-round birdie on the par-3 17th. Tiger, who waited across the water on the tee, won by 1.

And, motivated by Sergio's fittingly yellow-clad presence, Tiger punished him again on Sunday, beating him by six shots for the day and seven for the tournament.

Only Tiger knows how much he thought about Earl until the 18th fairway.

It didn't sound as if he dedicated this tournament to his late father until after he won. No, when he arrived, Tiger had to be more concerned about figuring out how to win without the man who taught him and always fixed his game and his confidence. The flood of tears surely had something to do with having proved to himself that he could pull it off without Pops.

Somewhere, DiMarco still must be shaking his head.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.