US PGA Championship: Easy-going Tiger Woods insists he is firmly on scent of 15th major
Woods confident of converting fine form in lesser tournaments into elusive win
Tiger Woods has never known a fallow period like it in major championships. Paradoxically he has never appeared more at ease with his lot. He took questions on fatherhood, discussing the wisdom of allowing son Charlie to follow in his footsteps two days after their first public embrace in the immediate aftermath of the victory at Firestone on Sunday. He entertained with tales of his own youth, defying his father's wishes that he pursue baseball, dashing straight from pitching practice to the golf course. And he talked about the weights regime of a 37-year-old, the vital importance of pumping iron to the crunching of golf balls.
The buoyant mood is entirely down to the state of his game, which is at a splendid peak. Woods arrives at Oak Hill for the US PGA Championship on the back of his fifth win of the season, the Bridgestone Invitational being one of two elite-field World Golf Championship triumphs this year. Another of his victories, the Players, carries the biggest cheque in golf. So he was justified in claiming it a successful season despite the absence of a major.
Yet that will not do for those who want more from their legends. Finding the right way to nail a bloke with 79 PGA Tour wins and 14 majors for underwhelming on the most demanding stage these past five years is a tricky business. Woods is a remarkable 23 over par across the weekends at his last seven majors, 14 rounds of flailing and failing. The theory goes, and it is not an unreasonable claim, that Woods is feeling the pressure as the backward stretch to major No 15 lengthens. The counter-argument must be that a player capable of flaying his contemporaries so mercilessly elsewhere is clearly comfortable in pressured environments.
This is the fellow who in 2010 stared down the world at the height of his marital shame to finish fourth at the Masters, his first tournament back since the Thanksgiving meltdown six months previously. That was pressure. Woods was public pariah No 1 that week, engulfed by the flames of moral outrage, yet he walked through the fire without feeling a thing. So if it isn't pressure, what's the deal? The answer lies to a degree in the nature of course set-up, which in majors rises steeply in difficulty, as it should.
But at some the set-up has introduced a degree of caprice that in fact warps outcomes. The 2012 US Open at Olympic Club would arguably be an example. By bringing the fairways in too much, growing the rough too high, making the greens too quick, good shots are not always rewarded with positive results. As a consequence these courses arguably place the trophy in the hands of the luckiest player, not the best.
At some point Woods believes the doors to major nirvana will open for him once more. He just needs to keep knocking. "I've had my share of chances to win. I've had my opportunities probably on half of those Sundays for the last five years where I've had a chance, and just haven't won it. But the key is to keep giving myself chances, and eventually I'll start getting them," Woods said. "The frustrating part [this year] is I didn't win two of the tournaments that I was right there in. One [The Masters], I hit a flagstick [rebounded in water] and I was leading the tournament and ended up getting a penalty. I put myself there with a chance and didn't get it done. Same thing at the Open [Muirfield]. But I feel pretty good about winning by seven [at Firestone] and coming here. Last week, that's how I played at the British Open. The only difference is I made more putts last week. I hit it just as good at Muirfield, and didn't make any putts the last three days."
Though Woods could not miss last week he made the most of Steve Stricker's presence in this field to fine-tune his blade action on Monday. "I've actually got to flip it around because he feels everything in his left hand and I feel everything in my right hand, but we believe in how the blade swings and how it moves. I wanted him to take a look at the angles of my shoulders and my arms, facial rotation, things of that nature."
If that is too technical for you, it was all instinct when Woods was asked about his son's career options.
"Whatever he decides, he decides. If he did decide to play golf, so be it. If he decides to play another sport or not play any sports; as long as he's happy and he enjoys his life, I'm there to support and guide him. That's what it's all about. I was in a different situation with my dad. People think he pushed me into golf, and it was the exact opposite. He was trying to get me not to play it. Go play baseball. OK, I'd go play baseball. I pitched. I can't wait to get out of this so I can go play golf. I would run track and cross-country and I'd run home fast to get to the golf course.
"I fell in love with golf at an early age; that was just my deal. I think the reason I did fall in love with it was because my dad kept it fun and light, and I just enjoyed being out there. That's what I want to do with [daughter] Sam or Charlie, if they play golf – no lessons. We are just going to go out there and just have fun, hit it around, laugh and needle each other. He's only four years old, but he still gives me a little bit of grief, which is good stuff."
Woods sans game face is a thing to behold. He should try the human stuff more often. Or maybe that is the problem, perhaps the comfort of all things domestic has diminished desire. We will find out more over the coming four days.
Mahan has no regrets he put his family first
At the Championship, Hunter Mahan will play his first event since withdrawing from the Canadian Open 10 days ago to be at the birth of his first child, Zoe. Mahan was leading by two shots at the time and clearly has no regrets about putting family before professional obligations.
"I haven't met anyone who has said I made the wrong decision," said the world No 25. "I went on Twitter to see what the response would be, because usually on Twitter they tell me how much I suck all the time, so I figured somebody would say, 'You're an idiot, you didn't know what you were doing'. But I didn't see that. Maybe I didn't look far enough down. It's been pretty much a consensus of people saying I did the right thing. I think it was nice [for them] to see someone not pick sports or glory in a way, and pick their family in a moment like that."
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