Letting go of Tiger's tail

Everybody expected Jose Maria Olazabal to make the putt.

Tiger Woods certainly did. Television stations had a camera trained on Woods as Olazabal settled over a four-footer in the fast-fading afternoon light. And Tiger, cold-eyed as ever, was already staring off into the distance as if mentally rehearsing his next tee shot.

TV analyst David Feherty expected Olazabal to make it, and said so.
Under their breath, so did most of the few thousand spectators ringing the green on the second extra hole on Sunday at the Buick Invitational and millions more looking in from the comfort of their living-room sofas.

Olazabal expected to make it, too, and with good reason. The 39-year-old Spaniard is one of the nerviest putters around. He’s rolled them in for two decades now, across five continents, with Masters, Ryder Cups and two dozen other tournaments on the line.

But not this time, and not against Woods, because ... well, because nobody ever hangs on long enough to beat him.

Some guys peel off early, some in the middle of a round, and a tough few, like Olazabal, only when their fingernails are pulled all the way back. But they all let go of Tiger’s tail, eventually.

“To be honest, it doesn’t matter who beats you,” Olazabal said.

But he knew better even as the words left his mouth. The putt Olazabal needed to force another play-off hole was a fast, tricky downhiller, with plenty of right-to-left break. The greens were bumpy by then, and the cool, moist, late-afternoon air made them even greasier, but the conditions weren’t anything Olazabal hadn’t faced dozens of times in a dozen different locales before.

“I had to make it,” Olazabal began, “so I decided that I was going to put less break on it and just hit it a little firmer. But I didn’t hit it firm enough.”

How many times have you heard some variation of the phrase “I had to make it, so I decided ...” from one of Tiger’s pursuers?

Sometimes he wrings the concession speeches from opponents with a barrage of birdies, forcing everybody near the top of the leader board to start gambling like tourists waiting on a delayed flight home from Las Vegas.

Other times, Woods piles up just enough pars on an opponent’s chest that the collective weight makes it tough to breathe. He gets tougher the longer the golf goes and, one way or another, squeezes everybody—even good pals like Olazabal—out of their comfort zone.

“It’s not how you want to win,” Woods said. “I had a chance to make birdie on 18 in the play-off and end it right there. You don’t ever take joy out of seeing friends do that.”

Other than the number of concession speeches, there’s no single measure that quantifies the effect Woods has on other golfers playing head-to-head. But here’s two stats that help: He’s won all but three of 36 tournaments on the PGA Tour while holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead; and, he’s 12-1 in play-offs worldwide (losing only to Billy Mayfair at the 1998 Nissan Open).

Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that Woods played formidably at Torrey Pines. He won the Junior World there at 15, has now won four times there and never finished out of the top 10 in nine appearances. Then again, he was coming off the longest self-imposed break of his career.

Woods turned 30 at the end of December and did some serious celebrating. He didn’t even look into his golf bag for 24 days.

“It was nice to put the clubs away,” Woods said, “and just chill.”

His putter, though, was still chilling through most of the tournament. He made a tough eight-footer for birdie at the 18th to get into a three-way play-off, then missed the a birdie putt of the same length at the same hole a few minutes later to end it.

The third member of the play-off, Australian rookie Nathan Green, departed after making a nervous bogey at the 18th. Olazabal followed suit when his four-footer for par at number 16 slid past the hole.

“I shouldn’t have even been in the play-off,” Woods said. “Of all the things that happened today, I kept saying, ‘At least you have a chance.’”

That’s about as humble as the man gets. Woods got ripped early in his pro career for admitting he won a tournament without his “A game”, and he quickly learned to beg off the questions about why this competitor or that folded by saying: “You’ll have to ask them.”

Feherty, a fair player himself not too long ago, felt no similar compunction to hold his tongue. He broke the brief silence after the missed putt with a few words that spoke volumes about Olazabal and Green, and for that matter, every other golfer who’s been undone by Tiger.

“Two pars by Woods. The other two fell on their swords.”—Sapa-AP

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press

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