Forget the Ides of March, August was the cruelest of months, at least for Tiger Woods. Over a single fortnight the unthinkable happened ... twice.
One long-time Tour putting coach pointed out that Woods “putts by memory,” and the only thing he wants to remember about Liberty National is the exit signs. His silence regarding the first-year venue spoke volumes and despite the ever-present chirping of his critics, Woods’ ballstriking at The Barclays and PGA Championship makes him a perennial favorite as the playoffs turn for home.
There’s nothing wrong with Woods that familiar greens at TPC of Boston, Cog Hill and East Lake can’t fix. There is, however, no escaping the accomplishments of Y.E. Yang and Heath Slocum, the two soft-spoken Davidss who took down the game’s Goliath.
On the cover, these two tomes are yin and, well yang, fiction and non-fiction, DSL and cable, fried catfish and kimchi.
One is a late bloomer from Jeju-do Island, the other came into full bloom last week in the shadow of the world’s busiest island – Manhattan; one is a southerner by the grace of God, the other a South Korean by United Nations mandate; one did a tour of duty in the DMZ, the other won his Tour card via a battlefield promotion.
Yet despite their vastly divergent paths, both have arrived at the same lofty crossroads within the last three weeks having won a Sunday staring contest against a man who has made a career out of not blinking.
Yang’s triumph, the more improbable of the two, given Woods’ two-stroke advantage going into the final round and his 14-for-14 record as a major closer, was largely written off as a putting anomaly, a byproduct of Woods’ 33 Sunday strokes on Hazeltine National’s greens.
But then Slocum found the answer to Liberty National’s greens, roared from four-shots back with a 67 and held off Woods for the biggest payday of his career that, at least in a twisted Monday quarterback way, validated Yang’s stunner.
“It had to happen eventually,” Slocum reasoned late Sunday in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Seemed about right, the towering lady has watched her share of fairytale endings in her day, what’s a little unscripted magic on emerald fairways carved from a former toxic waste dump?
If imitation is the best form of flattery, Woods must feel the love every time he walks into a gym or onto a practice range on Tour. The world No. 1 could probably make enough to top off the gas tanks on “Privacy” with premium unleaded selling “how to” books to his Tour stablemates.
Yet for those who have spent the last decade or so searching for the perfect “TW” playbook, Yang and Slocum are worthy of a closer inspection.
From two vastly different molds the Tiger-taming two-ball have reached strangely similar ends at least psychologically and strategically.
“He played the golf course,” said Dr. Gio Valiante, Slocum’s sports psychologist. “He didn’t get involved with who was between him and the lead or what Tiger was doing. It’s like laundry – wash, rinse, repeat.”
Good advice, particularly for the regular cast of Tiger challenging stand-ins who have seemed to subscribe to the “fluff and fold” school of thought.
Woods’ final-round scoring average was more than a stroke better than his primary opponents at major championships before the PGA. And yet Yang did Woods five better on Sunday at Hazeltine National while Slocum played the game’s alpha male to a draw (67) in New Jersey. But then that’s the “what;” it’s the “how” that matters.
On a pair of monster layouts – Hazeltine stretched to a burly 7,674 yards while Liberty was no slouch at 7,419 yards – Slocum (5-foot-7) and Yang (5-foot-9) did what they do best, hit for average.
Yang hit 11 of 14 fairways on Sunday, while Slocum was similarly safe (9 of 14 fairways) all the while averaging six fewer yards than Woods off the tee. Where the duo didn’t give ground is on the greens, the strongest part of both players’ games in recent years.
Slocum needed 109 putts to cover 72 holes at Liberty National and holed two attempts from outside 20 feet on Sunday, including that 21-foot walkoff at the last, compared to Woods’ 114 putts for the week and not a single holed attempt outside 17 feet all week.
Same story different National at the PGA, where Yang needed 118 putts to secure Asia’s first Grand Slam keepsake – men’s division – while Woods needed 120 putts and a restraining order to keep him from doing serious harm to that famous flat stick when the dust settled on the former corn field.
But then execution, particularly against Woods on a Sunday, is only part of the equation. If Yang and Slocum are to be copied, it seems the best way to tilt at the game’s ultimate windmill is with a hot putter and a set of industrial-strength blinders.
“I’ve never been around a more mentally tough competitor,” said Yang’s caddie A.J. Montecinos at Hazeltine National. “Nothing affects him, doubles, triples, whatever. He just doesn’t feel the pressure.”
There is also something to be said for lowered expectations. In fairness to all that road kill Woods has piled up over 70 Tour victories, many of the game’s media-anointed rivals have arrived in the center ring handicapped by expectations of something special.
With all due respect to Yang and Slocum, outside of immediate family and friends, few gave them a chance to turn the dog days of summer into the time of the underdog. It’s a reality both embraced.
“I’ve never seen a golfer put less pressure on himself to perform,” said Yang’s swing coach Brian Mogg. “He’s got a rare gift for that.”
A gift that, luckily for Woods, no one has conjured a way to box up and sell. But that won’t stop the rank and file from trying.