Commentary

Haney: Golf's best raise game vs. Tiger

Originally Published: February 27, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

MARANA, Ariz. -- The record is so impressive, his skills so daunting, it is natural to assume that players often wilt in his presence.

Being paired with Tiger Woods can certainly be cause for concern, especially given the daily distractions he faces that can range from mild amusement or major irritation to those playing alongside the world's No. 1-ranked player.

Dozens of photographers, media people, television cameras, not to mention all the extra spectators, make for an unnerving situation -- as was certainly the case here this week at the Accenture Match Play Championship.

It certainly didn't help Brendan Jones in his first-round match against Woods at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Wednesday. Throw in Woods' sometimes otherworldly skills and you can see how somebody might get spooked when facing him.

So how do you explain Tim Clark -- who put Woods out of the Accenture Match Play Championship on Thursday -- then bombed Friday against Rory McIlroy, a teenager who is 14 years younger than Tiger?

The South African has never won on the PGA Tour, came into the 2009 Accenture Match Play Championship with a 1-5 record in the event, and had been defeated by Woods 5 and 4 in this tournament two years ago.

And yet he went out against Woods, made six birdies and no bogeys, took a 3-up lead to the back nine, and won 4 and 2, giving Woods his worst loss ever in the tournament and forcing the event to go on without him this weekend.

"You can't control what somebody else does," said Hank Haney, Woods' swing coach, on Friday. "Tim Clark played good. He made a bomb [for a birdie on the sixth hole] and had six putts after seven holes. I knew it was going to be a tough day.

"But this idea that Tiger intimidates everybody. ... I watch Tiger play every round of golf. And I don't see it. I see quite the opposite. I can give you example after example of the opposite. I see guys now who raise their game playing with him."

That seemed to be the case with Clark, who after making six birdies against Woods, could manage just two in a 4 and 3 defeat to McIlroy.

But that is just one instance. Haney pointed to last year's Match Play Championship, in which J.B. Holmes had Woods 3 down with five holes to play before Tiger prevailed. Aaron Baddeley also gave Woods fits before falling in 20 holes. Haney often sees Woods taking others' best shot.

If you look at the last three groups in any major championship where you see guys struggle, they are in a difficult situation anyway, regardless of whether Tiger is there. We saw that last year at the majors when he was gone. It's a difficult situation anyway.

But when you see guys get in these situations, playing Tiger in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup or match-play situation, you see them loose as can be and elevating their game. I watch it all the time. I saw it yesterday. The guy never missed a shot.

-- Hank Haney

Woods has a losing record at the Ryder Cup (10-13-2), in which the Europeans appear to relish playing against him, especially in the team format. Two years ago, at the Presidents Cup, it seemed that all of Canada helped carry Mike Weir to a singles victory over Woods.

And then there is Rocco Mediate, the ultimate underdog who gamely battled Woods at last year's U.S. Open, finally falling in a playoff that went to the 19th hole. That was Mediate's first top-five finish since March 2007; and he hasn't had one since.

"A lot of guys playing with Tiger probably try too hard or think about the fact that they're playing with him, and it's really just a case of realizing that it's another round of golf," Clark said. "All you can do is hit your shots and move on and not get too caught up in what he's doing."

Clark did that beautifully on Thursday -- then found himself 2 down through two holes to McIlroy and was never able to get closer the rest of the way. Such is the nature of match play.

But what about stroke play? Surely Woods is an intimidating presence there. He is 35-1 on the PGA Tour when he has the outright lead heading into the final round. And all 14 of his major championships have been won from in front or tied for the lead.

Put another way, never has he taken at least a share of the lead into the final round and been defeated.

Haney has an explanation, and it has to do with the major championship pressure.

"If you look at the last three groups in any major championship where you see guys struggle, they are in a difficult situation anyway, regardless of whether Tiger is there," Haney said. "We saw that last year at the majors when he was gone. It's a difficult situation anyway.

"But when you see guys get in these situations, playing Tiger in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup or match-play situation, you see them loose as can be and elevating their game. I watch it all the time. I saw it yesterday. The guy never missed a shot."

Clark was nearly flawless against Woods, but that wasn't the case against McIlory. Perhaps it was a case of putting so much into the Woods match and not having much left. Maybe he felt the pressure to beat a player who is very talented but inexperienced.

"I think yesterday obviously playing on so much adrenaline it's tough to come out today," Clark said Friday. "And I just felt a little bit flat. ... So it was tough for me. The excitement obviously wasn't quite there and I just didn't hit enough good shots. I missed a lot of fairways today, whereas yesterday I didn't do that. I don't really know the reason for that."

Maybe Haney is on to something.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com