ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Tiger Woods had just made a mess of his final hole, wasting his good walk unspoiled with a double-bogey, when an enthusiastic fan from Rochester named Larry Waller leaned over the ropes and shouted at the steamed Oak Hill favorite marching by.
"You have the same energy as Nelson Mandela," Waller said.
The fan explained that he'd read Tiger's recent account of his 1998 meeting with Mandela, one that left Tiger awestruck, and that he wanted Woods to know some people feel the same vibe radiating from him. If it's a bit much to compare a world-changing social and political figure to a champion golfer, hey, Waller was only following the late Earl Woods' lead.
But here's the local man's point: Tiger Woods is different. He's transcendent. People see him as the one and only player who's bigger than the game, and by a long par-5 at that.
Precisely why Woods needs to win the PGA Championship from 6 shots behind if this is to go down as a truly great season for him. The issue was raised again the other day, when Woods was asked if his five tour victories notarized 2013 as a great year, or if another majorless season would qualify as something less than that.
Tiger agreed that a W in one of the four Grand Slam events trumps everything.
"Even if you miss the cut in every tournament you play in, you win one [major], you're part of history," he said.
But he also cited the Players Championship and two World Golf Championship titles, including the blowout at Firestone, as proof positive that this has been "a great year so far for me." Woods spoke of four more big tournaments to follow the PGA, the four legs of the FedExCup playoffs, as if they would somehow grant him more chances to close the gap on Jack Nicklaus.
They won't. And deep down, Woods probably doesn't care about those playoffs much more than the sports fan who will use the PGA's conclusion as a reason to put his golf passions in storage and start tracking the Red Sox, or Mark Sanchez versus Geno Smith.
Or else? Yes, the terms of engagement for Woods aren't what they are for any other world-class pro, Phil Mickelson included. The PGA is Tiger's last chance to score in the only game that counts, the game he's playing against Nicklaus and history.
Woods did this to Woods, after all. He made it clear from childhood on that he wanted Jack's record of 18 majors to go down, and go down hard. Nobody seems to recall Tiger saying much about Sam Snead's record of 82 tour titles, one the red shirt (at 79 and counting) will obliterate soon enough.
It's all about Nicklaus. Tiger knows it, you know it, and Tiger knows that you know it. He can win another hundred WGC events and Arnold Palmer Invitationals, and it won't move him any closer to the goal line than a Tiger victory at your local member-guest.
Woods should take this as the ultimate compliment, too, because five nonmajors would be career makers for just about anyone else. Mickelson has never won five in a single season; Woods has now won at least five in 10 different seasons. He's one of the two greatest players of all time for a reason: his relentless consistency. To the garden-variety tour pro, it's the most lethal weapon in Tiger's bag.
But historians want more because Woods wants more. Tiger established the standard for greatness by making Nicklaus a bull's-eye on his bedroom wall, compelling people to talk less about Tiger's five victories in the nonmajors and more about his five-year drought in the majors.
Truth is, he's having as hard a time winning No. 15 as, say, Lee Westwood is trying to win No. 1. Why? Who knows. Is it possible that a sex scandal and divorce can cost a man his weekend aim at Augusta National, Merion and Muirfield, years later, yet leave him focused enough to pummel the field at Firestone?
This much is clear: Though the old Tiger packed the mental toughness of a Nicklaus and a Ben Hogan, the drought has gotten inside his head. When he wins No. 15, No. 16 likely won't be far behind, and the hunt for the Golden Bear will be back on schedule.
Only he needs to win No. 15 first. And toward that end, Woods did little to help himself in Round 1 at Oak Hill, despite a promising start.
Teeing off early on the back nine, and playing on a course softened by overnight rain, Woods nearly sank a wedge shot from the fairway on the par-5 13th and tapped in for birdie. He went 2 under on the par-3 16th, and seemed primed to seize upon the wind-free conditions and make a mad dash up the board.
It never happened. At the turn, playing with card-carrying slowpokes Davis Love III (on the greens) and Keegan Bradley (on the greens, in the fairways and on the tee boxes), Woods was distracted when his group was put on the clock. He said that it wasn't unusual, and that the warning was a natural hustle-and-bustle byproduct of his outsized gallery and press corps.
But it did unnerve Tiger on a missed 4-footer at No. 2 that would've pushed him to 3 under.
"Probably should have taken a little bit longer [on the putt]," he said, "but we were on the clock and had to get going, so ended up blocking the putt anyways down the hill."
He made a sloppy bogey at the par-5 fourth, and ruined a save out of the bunker at No. 9 -- his final hole of the day -- by trying to lob a wedge over the sand. Willing to settle for a two-putt bogey, Woods chunked his wedge into the trap and settled for the two-putt double-bogey instead.
"I'm still right there," Tiger maintained after his 1-over 71. "As of right now, I'm only 6 back and we have got a long way to go."
On his own big-picture scoreboard, Woods is four back of Jack with a long way to go. He remains winless this year in his chase of Nicklaus, making this PGA Championship a must-have.
It isn't fair, but that's the burden of Tiger's genius. In a sport that requires skilled everyday players to give strokes to weaker opponents, this is Tiger's handicap:
He gets to count only four tournaments a year.