Commentary

Tiger's Memorial win rekindles magic

Updated: June 3, 2012, 11:53 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- The focus has never been on this number. Tiger Woods always hoped to eclipse it along the way to immortality, adding it to a list of surreal accomplishments, more résumé fodder to ponder.

The poster on his bedroom wall as a kid concerned major championship hardware, specifically the outrageous standard set by Jack Nicklaus.

But getting to Nicklaus' mark of 73 PGA Tour victories is nice, too.

And to do it at Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament, with the Golden Bear himself sitting behind the 18th green watching Woods fire a shot at the flag and drain the clinching birdie putt, is about as good as it gets.

"He had to rub it in my face right here, didn't he?'' Nicklaus joked Sunday.

That's Tiger. You have to appreciate his flair for the dramatic, even if it has been lacking to a large degree over the past few years.

But there he was at Muirfield Village, charging up the leaderboard with four front-nine birdies, falling behind with a couple of bogeys, seemingly out of it with a few holes to play. Woods was all but dead when his approach went over the 16th green. Then he somehow got that chip shot to drop in for a birdie that shook the central Ohio ground.

Nicklaus called it one of the best shots he's ever seen under the circumstances, and who are we to argue?

Who could get that ball close, let alone hole it? But Woods did, setting up his second victory of the year and tying Nicklaus at 73 wins on the PGA Tour, nine behind all-time leader Sam Snead.

"It was phenomenal,'' said caddie Joe LaCava. "And the roar was unbelievable.''

The par-3 16th was playing 201 yards over water to a back left pin made more difficult by a left-to-right wind that Nicklaus suggested was too difficult for such a position. Just four players birdied it, but Woods was the only one among the top 10 to do so.

His 8-iron approach -- an 8-iron from 200 yards, mind you -- was aimed just a bit to the right and went over the green. From there, Woods was faced with a 50-foot flop shot that he admitted he hoped to get within 8 feet of the hole to have a putt at par.

"It was just so downhill and running away from me,'' Woods said. "It just fell in. I didn't think it was going to get there at one point. Kind of like 16 at Augusta, I thought I was going to leave it short somehow, and then it fell in.''

Woods referenced the birdie chip he made during the 2005 Masters, where he aimed away from the flag, bumped the ball into a slope and saw it roll back ever so slowly into the cup.

"This was one of the hardest ones I've pulled off,'' he said.

"You [would] hit a good shot to get it inside 10 feet,'' said Rickie Fowler, who played alongside Woods. "And it came out perfect, landed kind of right on the crown of that ridge there, and the rest is history.

"He loves being in the moment, and that's where he kind of gets down, focuses and hits those shots. It was fun to see.''

Nicklaus, the tournament founder who designed Muirfield Village and redesigned the 16th two years ago, said Woods had little room for error.

"If he leaves it short, he's going to leave himself again a very difficult shot. If he hits it long, he's probably going to lose the tournament,'' Nicklaus said. "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. But what a shot.

"I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot.''

That shot, of course, is what will long be remembered in Woods' fifth victory at this tournament. He matched Nicklaus at 73 wins at age 36 -- 10 years prior to the Golden Bear's final win at the 1986 Masters, when he was 46. Woods also moved to No. 4 in the world, the top-ranked American behind Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood in the global standings.

But perhaps more important to Woods is the way he played this tournament. It was vintage Tiger from a ball-striking standpoint. He led the field in greens in regulation (53-of-72) and hit 13 of 14 fairways Sunday, missing his only one at the ninth, where his ball was a few inches into the fringe. He managed to win despite being just 41st in the tour's "strokes gained-putting" category.

Woods shot 5-under-par 67 in the final round to win by two over Rory Sabbatini and Andres Romero. Woods played the last four holes in 3 under par.

"Not that he putted bad, but if he would have made anything he would have won by 6 shots,'' LaCava said. "That's how good he hit the ball. He played so well tee to green.''

Fowler, who shot 84 to get beat by 17 shots, has played several times with Woods at home in South Florida and said a few weeks ago at The Players Championship that Woods was not taking the same game to tournaments that he showed behind closed gates.

That changed this week, and was apparent on Friday and Saturday when Woods played solidly in blustery conditions.

"He was hitting some solid golf shots, and it was fun to see him finally out there making some swings like he does when we're at home,'' Fowler said. "He looked very comfortable and hit a lot of good shots, and the times where he's in the moment and in the heat of contention is where he really shines.''

Woods said he didn't miss a shot all day and felt much more comfortable practicing at home last week. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March with some solid play, then had the worst three-tournament stretch of his career, tying for 40th at the Masters, missing the cut at the Wells Fargo Championship, and again tying for 40th at The Players Championship.

A trip earlier this week to the Olympic Club, site of the U.S. Open in two weeks, only emboldened his confidence. "If I can hit the ball well there, I just basically carried that into this event and hit it great all week.''

The U.S. Open is the next test, and Woods will arrive in San Francisco having gone four years since his last major victory.

And that is the Nicklaus number that matters the most. Jack's 18 majors still stand tall, with Woods four behind at 14. A win at any of the remaining three major championships this year would renew such chatter.

But Woods wasn't talking about that Sunday.

Woods praised Nicklaus at the trophy presentation, and again sitting beside him in a post-tournament news conference.

"He means a lot to all of us players,'' Woods said. "We all looked up to him, and he's the greatest champion who ever lived.''

Woods, if the Memorial was any indication, will still have something to say about that.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE