Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus have never had a conversation longer than a couple of minutes, and rarely about golf. Maybe it’s because they already think along the same lines when it comes to winning tournaments.
The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was another example of how Woods rarely beats himself.
Nicklaus was under the oak tree at Augusta National last month after hitting his ceremonial tee shot when he talked about one that got away, the first time he had a share of the lead going into the final round of a major and didn’t win. It was the 1971 Masters, and he found the water trying to reach the 15th green with a 3-wood.
“I don’t like to waste a tournament on one shot,” Nicklaus said. “If I was today thinking about strategy of what I wanted to do on that, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I put myself out of the tournament. One shot shouldn’t be a shot that puts you out of the tournament.”
The island green on the TPC Sawgrass is nothing like the 15th at Augusta National, but it’s hard not to think about Nicklaus when reviewing the hole that settled a weekend duel between Woods and Sergio Garcia.
Woods was standing on the 17th tee Sunday when he looked over and saw Garcia approaching the par-5 16th green with a putter in hand, realizing he was there in two and at worst would make birdie to tie Woods for the lead.
The pin was in its traditional Sunday location, the back right corner behind the bunker. Finding land is always the priority. From there, it’s a bonus to catch the ridge that feeds the golf ball down a gentle slope toward the hole.
“The thing is, you can get baited into hitting it over there, and that’s the hard part,” Woods said. “I thought that the prudent play for me was hit it in the center of the green, even left-center, and try and hit kind of a pull-cut. It I hit a pull-cut, it’s going to have a little bit of distance to it, and it might have the shape where it might land up on top and feed down. But when I hit it, a little bit of gust came up and it stalled out.”
The ball stayed on the front of the green, leaving a difficult putt from 45 feet. Woods hit a lot of good putts that didn’t go in Sunday. This might have been the best putt that he wasn’t expecting to go in. The pace was perfect, 3 feet away, and he made his par. Mission accomplished.
Garcia, who two-putted for birdie on the 16th, was standing on the 17th tee watching Woods make his par.
The Spaniard won The Players Championship in 2008 in a playoff on the 17th hole. Paul Goydos came up short and in the water, Garcia found the green.
This wasn’t a playoff.
Garcia, however, went at the flag and posed over the shot until he saw the splash.
“As the ball was in the air I was thinking, ‘Please be right,’ because it was straight at it,” Garcia said. “It was probably 3 feet left of the hole. When it splashed, you think, ‘Well, hopefully I hit a good shot after this and make 4 and still have a chance on the next.’ It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
Only it wasn’t that simple. His next shot bounced off the mound framing a bunker and caromed back into the water. He wound up with a quadruple-bogey 7. Adding to his misery, Garcia put his tee shot into the water on the 18th for a double bogey.
To say such mistakes never happen to Woods would be to ignore the final hole at Dubai in 2001, when he went for the green on the 18th hole and found water for a double bogey to lose by two shots. He has lost tournaments down the stretch. More often than not, the other guy beats him.
Back to Nicklaus, talking about Augusta National, though it can apply to other golf courses and situations.
“If you’ve got a 50-50 chance of doing it, I wouldn’t be doing it,” Nicklaus said about high-risk shots. “If you’ve got a 90-10 chance, think real hard about it, and try to make sure you eliminate the 10.”
(Nicklaus said he has never talked to Phil Mickelson about this.)
Woods made a mistake on Sunday when he hit a pop-hook into the water on the 14th, leading to double bogey that gave hope to about a half-dozen players, at least for a short time. That was because of a bad swing, which is bound to happen over 18 holes of a final round. It’s his head that kept him in the game.
“I stayed really patient,” Woods said. “I kept telling myself, ‘That was your only bad swing you made all day. You can still win this tournament.”’
He figured if he could play the last four holes in 1-under, he would at least get into a playoff. He played the last four in 1 under and won The Players Championship. Of the four players tied for the lead, two went into the water on the 17th — Garcia and Jeff Maggert — while David Lingmerth made a gallant try. He missed an 8-foot birdie chance on the 17th and had to make a 70-foot putt down two ridges on the 18th to tie. He three-putted for bogey.
Woods now is 52-4 when he has at least a share of the lead going into the final round on the PGA Tour, which does not count his playoff win over Tom Lehman in La Costa. They were tied for the lead when rain washed out the last round. Woods won in a playoff when Lehman hit into the water, and Woods hit his tee shot to a foot.
His four wins this year speak to why Woods is such a good closer. He has yet to break 70 in the final round in those four wins. He didn’t need to.
Of the 52 times that Woods won with at least a share of the lead after 54 holes, his average score in the final round is 70.5. The 22 times he has won when trailing after 54 holes, his average score in the final round is 66.6.
It’s all about doing whatever it takes to win. And when you don’t, make sure it’s because someone else beats you.
Doug Ferguson covers golf for The Associated Press. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.