At the beginning of the final round of the PGA Championship, played in the western suburbs at the Medinah Country Club two weeks ago, Tiger Woods strode purposefully down the fairways. He's put on considerable weight in his shoulders and upper body--he's bigger and better than the lithe lad who won the Western Open two years ago at Cog Hill Country Club in Lemont, after his runaway victory at the Masters--and he looked like an athlete in his prime. Tied for the lead at the start of the day, he finished the front nine in 33, three under par, with three birdies and no bogeys. He added another birdie on the par-four 11th hole to extend his lead to five strokes. But by the end of the day he looked bedraggled, relieved just to have finished, much less won.
That reversal was less a sign of weakness than of strength. The final round of the PGA, which I watched on television (as with football, the medium of choice) was sport of high drama and drama of high character. Woods seemed to undergo a change in personality, confident on the front nine, clinging to the lead with his fingernails on the back. He was also paired--on TV if not on the course--with 19-year-old Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia, who led the tournament after the first round, went somewhat astray in the middle rounds, and came on strong in the finale, playing with the blind emotion and energy of youth. On the 16th hole Garcia made the kind of shot only a rash kid would have attempted, from the base of a tree, and chased it down the fairway, leaping in the air like Buster Keaton as he traced its path uphill and onto the green.
Most golf aficionados wanted to see a Woods-Garcia pairing, something that never came off at the PGA but probably will soon--perhaps in one of those canned, made-for-TV cage matches like the one Woods played recently with David Duval--but Garcia was better off not having to play Woods head-to-head. Woods is a punishing match-play golfer, battle-tested by winning three straight U.S. Amateur Championships under that win-or-go-home format earlier in the decade, and he toyed with Duval in that made-for-TV match, forcing him into risky shots and then playing it safe after Duval cracked under the pressure. He'd toy with Garcia the same way, though Garcia is probably just young enough not to be intimidated. In any event, playing just in front of Woods, Garcia did his best to put the pressure on him, sinking a birdie putt on the treacherous par-three 13th hole and then raising his fist for the gallery and, of course, his competitor back on the tee. (He did not, however, point at Woods, as many in the media later claimed.)
Challenged, Woods hit the ball long into heavy rough, blasted out and rolled through the green onto the other side, chipped up, and then two-putted for a double bogey, watching his lead go from five to two in a matter of minutes. He stumbled again with a bogey on the 16th hole and staggered to the even more treacherous 17th. Ben Crenshaw, playing the same hole at the 1975 U.S. Open, put his tee shot in the water and sank from contention. But Woods held on, making a seven-foot putt for par. He'd been playing against himself all week, all but sealing up the tournament on the front nine, but Garcia's birdie and his own double bogey had splintered his confidence. When he finished at 18, a stroke ahead of Garcia, he went to pieces, not unlike Michael Jordan after any of his NBA Championship victories.
Many commentators pounced on Woods as if he had disgraced himself, especially when he complained about some heckling he'd taken on the course--nothing personal or racial, just a sort of bleacher mentality brought to the golf course. Woods is partly responsible for that, having popularized the sport like no one since Arnold Palmer. (It's also worth noting that the local print journalists called Woods a whiner, while the TV commentators thought the Medinah crowd was too rowdy.) But golf is a game of propriety and etiquette; to shout at a player, "A grand you slice it in the lake," as one person supposedly said to Woods on the 17th, isn't the same as heckling a ballplayer at Wrigley Field. Golf is a mental game, played less against an opponent than against oneself, and players may increasingly have to steel themselves against not only their own insecurities but also those sown by the fans. That would make golf an immeasurably more difficult sport, but Woods proved himself capable of dealing with it.
He also maintained his composure during the media-manufactured controversy over the Ryder Cup, stirred up here in town by Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times and quickly pursued by a couple of other baying hounds. Woods and Duval have suggested that they be paid for competing in the Ryder Cup, a glorified international golf meet that had little prestige until TV networks started promoting it as a way of extending the season. Last year the PGA gave a majority of its Ryder Cup profits to charity, including junior programs of the sort that produced Woods and Duval. That's all well and good, but Woods and Duval are entitled to bow out. Golfers already play one of the longest seasons in major sports, and, Woods's multimillion-dollar marketing deals aside, their monetary compensation is slight compared with other sports. Duval, the top-ranked player in the world going into the PGA, will be lucky to make half the yearly income of White Sox slugger Frank Thomas.
In siding against Woods--in favor of both the Ryder Cup and flavor-of-the-month Garcia--the media were putting him to the test all great athletes endure. At some point the media turn on their creations to see if they can stand the pressure. In 1993, Michael Jordan's fawning coverage suddenly grew vicious. Like Jordan, Woods has found a way to prevail. If you count his three U.S. Amateur titles as majors (and you must in order to compare him with golf greats going back to Bobby Jones), his PGA win gives him five majors this decade, a quarter of the way to Jack Nicklaus's record 20 and well on his way to Jones's 13--all at age 23. Of course, the majors will get tougher as the waves of Woods-inspired golfers like Garcia keep coming and public and media scrutiny grows more intense. That scrutiny is the true challenge of the modern-day sports hero, the 13th labor Hercules never had to survive.