Miracle shot which means that Tiger is the one to fear at US Open
Woods' dramatic victory at Memorial – helped by stunning chip-in at 16th – leaves Nicklaus purring
It is a lone voice that would shout down Tiger Woods now. With the endorsement of Jack Nicklaus, whose 73 PGA Tour wins he equalled at Memorial, and his own belief that he is playing as well as ever, if not better, San Francisco is already looking like a graveyard for the hopes of the US Open field next week.
There is no denying the symbolic quality of the Woods ascent. His two victories this year have come at tournaments hosted by Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus. His next event is the US Open. There is, in the eyes of Woods' devotees, a pattern developing that leads inexorably to his coronation at the aptly named Olympic Club.
And did his eyes twinkle as he received the compliments of Nicklaus and assembled guests during his post-victory obligations. Even the smile and gratitude have returned at the close of media conferences. "Thanks, guys, appreciate it." This is, of course, a time to be gracious. He played beautifully all week and on the final day reprised the best of his youth with a chip-in on the 16th that, just like the miracle shot seven years ago at the Masters, defied the conventions of the game.
Nicklaus might never get over it. "Tiger has been struggling [since 2009]. He had one place to land the ball, he's playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he's going to leave himself again a very difficult shot. If he hits it long, he's going to probably lose the tournament. He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. It doesn't make a difference whether it went in the hole or not. Going in the hole was a bonus. What a shot. I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot."
That is all the oxygen the Woods hyperbole needs. The records show only Sam Snead ahead of him in PGA Tour wins. Woods requires nine more to drawl level on 82. To stand shoulder to shoulder with Nicklaus on 73 was, he said, an honour. "It's special for me to do it here, to do it with Jack here, with his involvement in the tournament and the game. It just makes it that much more special. If I would have won it somewhere else, it would have just been I tied Jack. But it do it here and have him here right next to me right now, that means something to us as players."
Woods defied temperatures of 40C to remain in contention. Three birdies over the closing four holes took him to the top of the podium, two clear of Rory Sabbatini and Andres Romero. He heads to the US Open ranked four in the world. In his head he is ranked even higher.
Nothing wrong with confidence, though it might be wise to counsel caution, given what happened after his win at Bay Hill. Woods nosedived into a tie for 40th at the Masters, missed the cut at Quail Hollow and tied 40th at the Players Championship. As you might expect, he has an answer for that. "At Bay Hill I played well on that Sunday, but I just didn't have the control I did today. That was different. I'm able to hit the ball, I think, compressing it higher than I did at Bay Hill," Woods said.
"I was comfortable hitting it down, uncomfortable hitting it up. As I said at Augusta, I got exposed, wasn't able to get the ball up in the air comfortably, and it showed. I went to work on it for the next few weeks, and I finally got it. It came around here when I needed it."
While Woods repairs to Jupiter this week to hone his game further, the principal figures who would give chase are busy refining their challenges. Rory McIlroy, he of three successive missed cuts, tees up at the St Jude Classic on Thursday hoping to see some action across the weekend. The world No 2's early exit at Memorial afforded a first visit to Olympic Club, where he defends the trophy he won so impressively at Congressional.
The world No 3, Lee Westwood, has chosen to support the European Tour in Sweden, where a Wednesday start at least allows participants to arrive in San Francisco a day early. Westwood's season is built on seasonal peaks. Tied third at the Masters would have been a runaway win had the putts dropped. It was ever thus.
That is not a problem for world No 1 Luke Donald, a winner at Wentworth nine days ago and a top-20 finisher at Memorial after a closing 68. Of Europe's lauded trio at the top of the world rankings it is Donald, working assiduously at home in Florida this week, who remains best placed to prick the Woods bubble in San Francisco.
Tiger v Jack: The stats
Tiger Woods Jack Nicklaus
73 PGA Tour titles 73
171 Top-10 finishes 286
283 Tournaments played 594
14 Majors 18
* A large gap separates the pair from fellow Americans Ben Hogan (64 Tour wins) and Arnold Palmer (62), who are next on the list.
* Both Woods and Nicklaus still lag behind the all-time record held by Sam Snead (82 Tour wins).
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