Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Memorable Memorial as Woods overtakes Nicklaus record

Tiger Woods is still pursuing Jack Nicklaus’s record of eighteen major tournament victories, but at the 2012 Memorial Tournament – Jack’s tournament on Jack’s golf course, Muirfield Village – he stepped up onto the same line on the all-time-wins leaderboard as Jack.

Nicklaus has long stood alone on the second-place step of the all-time-wins victory stand with 73 wins, nine behind Sam Snead’s record of 82, but now he has company. In the final round of the tournament, Tiger Woods came from four strokes back of the 54-hole leader, Spencer Levin, of Sacramento, CA, to post his fifth win at the Memorial Tournament, and his seventy-third professional tournament victory, equaling Nicklaus’ mark.

This was the second time this year that Spencer Levin has failed to capitalize on a third-round lead; in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, in February, Levin blew up in the last round, throwing away a six-stroke lead to eventual victor Kyle Stanley. His final-round fall from grace in the 2012 Memorial was not as dramatic as his collapse in Phoenix, but it was just as untimely, and has reinforced Levin’s reputation as a “twitchy” player who can’t close the deal on Sunday.

Levin opened strong with a tournament-leading 5-under 67 on Thursday, fell back to tenth place on the leaderboard on Friday with an even-par 72, then rebounded with a 69 on Saturday to retake the lead. Levin opened the final round with a clean, though unspectacular, 1-under opening nine – a birdie on the first hole followed by eight pars. His putter, which had been behaving more like a magic wand than a golf club all week, started to let him down on the back nine in the final round, but it might have had to have been a magic wand to get him out of the trouble he was getting himself into from tee to green over the closing holes of the tournament.

A poor – but lucky – shot out of a fairway bunker on the tenth hole set up his first bogey of the round when a poor club choice resulted in a blast into the steep face of the deep bunker. Ricocheting off the face, the ball traveled only 45 yards, but it could as easily have plugged and put him an even more difficult situation. Waylaid by more trips into the bunkers – on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th, and 17th holes – Levin’s endgame just was not up to the task of holding off a hard-charging Tiger Woods. He only put up one more birdie in the round, on the par-4 14th hole, against the bogey on 10, two more bogies on 12 and 17, and a double-bogey on 13.

A similar, though less dramatic, roller-coaster ride was experienced by South African Rory Sabbatini. His scores of 69-69-71-72 saw him in the third-, eleventh-, and second-place spots on the leaderboard through Saturday. It doesn’t look like a bad run of scores, but the final round 72 wasn’t enough to hold off Woods. A couple of wayward tee shots and a missed putt or two were all it took to rack up the three bogeys that spelled the difference between victory and his eventual T-2 finish.

Wearing his customary red-over-black Sunday colors, Woods came out of the gate strong in the final round, posting one bogey – on the 8th hole – against four birdies for an opening 33. Another bogey, on the 10th hole, backed him up a shot, but he gathered himself up with a run of four straight pars before putting his foot down and racing to the finish with three birdies over the last four holes.

Woods had appeared to be under the weather early in the tournament, affected by allergies or a cold, and is reported to have been running a fever of 102 degrees during Saturday’s round. All illness and infirmity was behind him on Sunday, however, and a combination of clean tee shots, spectacular iron play, and a zeroed-in putter spelled doom for his stumbling competitors.

The highlight shot of Woods’ back nine, and the tournament, was a Mickelson-esque flop shot to the 16th green. After his tee shot to the 201-yard par-3 skipped off the green, carrying past and coming to rest in the lush rough behind the putting surface, Woods lofted a spectacular, one-in-a-thousand flop shot out of the rough that landed softly on the green, rolled down toward the flagstick and dropped into the hole for a birdie two. It was a shot that could easily have gone very badly wrong in less-skilled hands – hit fat and landed short, the shot would have left a tricky downhill putt to a flagstick hard by the water; hit thin, the ball would have skittered across the putting surface and into the water fronting the green, with double-bogey the likely result. Nicklaus himself praised the shot, both from the broadcast booth and later, when he greeted Tiger as he came off of the 18th green, saying that it was the best shot he’d ever seen on this course.

The holed-out flop shot was the most dramatic of Woods’ iron shots on the back nine, but consistent, deadly accurate iron play was the key to his final-round comeback. Tight approach shots from good fairway positions set up the chances for birdies – his play on the 18th hole was a sterling example.

Standing 174 yards out after a 265-yard tee shot, Woods’ caddie, Joe La Cava, told his boss, “One more great iron, buddy”, before stepping away with the bag. Woods delivered, flying a 176-yard 8-iron shot to 8 feet, 10 inches above the hole in a demonstration of the kind of precision shot-making that we used to take for granted from him. He sank the putt, a far-from-easy downhill slider with just a bit of left-hand break in the middle, and all but wrapped up the trophy while his only viable pursuer, Sabbatini, was still on the course.

At that point a Sabbatini comeback was the longest of longshots, as the South African would have had to hole out his second shot to tie Woods’ 281 final score and force a playoff. Sabbatini swung with everything he had off the tee, trying to clear the bunker complex guarding the inside corner of the slight dogleg right fairway. He came up a scant two yards short of the required 315-yard carry, his ball landing in the rough on the upslope on the far side of the last bunker, just short of the fairway.

With 117 yards to the hole, Sabbatini’s second shot flew high and on line, but skipped off the putting surface, giving Woods the victory. A too-short chip and five-and-a-half foot putt later, Sabbatini’s round was over. He ended the day tied for second with Argentina’s Andres Romero, who had moved up from T-6 to T-2 on the strength of a final round 67.

The consistency of Woods’ tee shots, iron play, and putting this weekend at the Memorial bode well for his chances at the U.S. Open, which is only two weeks away. Returning to San Francisco’s Olympic Club for the first time since 1997, the 2012 Open will be played on Olympic’s tight, demanding Lake Course, where the rewards awaiting accurate shotmaking are more than matched by the penalties visited on poor shots.

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