Tiger Wins and Tiger Prepares

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Of the 57 different varieties of Tiger Woods official PGA TOUR victories, this one smacked the most of preparation.
 
All those 3-wood stingers off the tee boxes on par-4s--and, yes, par-5s. All that grinding around the greens. All those important putts holed even though he didnt convert them all.
 
Woods two-shot victory over resurgent Steve Stricker Sunday in North Carolina on a hard golf course against a deep field at the Wachovia Championship smacked, to me, of preparation.
 
Preparation for next weeks PLAYERS Championship where, unless unforecast rain gets in the way, the tweaked Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass will play faster and nastier than a Josh Beckett slider on a 1-2 count.
 
And it smacked of preparation for next months U.S. Open at vaunted Oakmont in Pennsylvania, where the greens promise torture and the rest of the golf course takes no prisoners.
 
Discretion in club selection at Sawgrass and Oakmont will be the better part of valor. And whereas valor has never been a problem for Woods, consistent discretion has been the only thing that keeps him from winning more regularly than he already does.
 
People have been positing the notion for some time now that, for the worlds best players, the driver has become a boutique club. The best and the smartest have been learning that they only need to pull the big dog from the bag when the rewards outweigh the risks.
 
Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and others ... they can all pump their stock 3-woods in excess of 300 yards on a regular basis. The question then becomes twofold: Whats the right club off the tee for the right hole at the right time? And, secondly, how much of their egos can the best players in the world suppress when length remains so seductive?
 
At the moment, Woods gets it.
 
Through 54 holes at Quail Hollow he hit just 18 of 42 fairways. During that same span he hit 39 of 54 greens. He kept the ball in play when it mattered most. And he survived a Sunday bogey on a par-5 (No. 10) and a rare jump-up-and-bite-you double-bogey 5 on the par-3 13th.
 
The guts of his round, and the tournament, for Woods was the stretch of golf he played from the sixth through the ninth. Four straight 3s. Par, eagle, birdie, birdie.
 
All the while looking like a man who was concentrating on the task at hand while simultaneously studying for two final exams -- PLAYERS and Oakmont -- that hold the promise of separating him even more from the competition, at the top of his class, by the end of the first half of the year.
 
Pretty good view, too, from the top. And the back.
 
Woods was in the final pairing both days on the weekend. Saturday with Vijay Singh, perhaps the player he enjoys beating the most. And then Sunday with 54-hole leader Rory Sabbatini.
 
Singh, one of the great foils in all of sport, had the temerity on Saturday to slam-dunk an 8-iron on the twelfth hole that temporarily vaulted him into a tie for the lead, one shot ahead of Woods. Woods had the good grace to later refer to Singhs eagle as pretty cool.
 
But moments after Vijays deuce, there was Tiger on the same hole wresting back a share of the lead with a 12-footer for birdie. And there was Tiger again on the seventh hole Sunday almost finding the hazard with his drive only to respond by hoisting a 197-yard 8-iron onto the green from a bad lie accompanied by an awkward stance.
 
And there was Woods jarring his 57-foot putt for eagle that would turn out to be the signature stroke of his 57th TOUR win. Even the subsequent vintage Woods fist pump looked a bit like a rehearsal for Sawgrass and Oakmont.
 
Can anybody stop Tiger? We have asked this question before and, of course, the answer is yes even though its hard to identify just the right challenger at the moment. There is more than one Zach Johnson out there, waiting in the weeds, like Johnson did at this years Masters, ready to snatch another major from Tiger.
 
Right now Stricker looks pretty good. Hard to believe hes 40 years old now. Even harder to believe hes driving the ball so straight after so many years spent burning in one-wood purgatory.
 
Phil Mickelson looks even better. Its been two events now since Lefty has thrown in with instructor Butch Harmon. Both will tell you theres lots more hard work to do--Phil hit only four fairways Sunday. But Mickelson, a quick study, has two straight top-5s to show for his work with Butch.
 
Mickelson will be at Sawgrass and Oakmont. So will Butch. So will Johnson and Stricker and Hank Haney, Tigers instructor. And there will be plenty of other Goosens, Harringtons, Els, Furyks and Scotts as well.
 
This is the time of year in mens professional golf when the pot gets stirred while the plot thickens.
 
If Woods at Wachovia smacked of preparation, it also served as a reminder that nobody smacks a golf ball, week in and week out, better than he does. And, said Tiger late Sunday when asked about next week. I still need to do some work.
 
But consider, for now, that Woods has done almost all of his lessons. And consider, for now, that everybody else, by comparison, is just reading the CliffsNotes.
 
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Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - Wachovia Championship