The fighter in Woods

Tiger Woods’ intensity is usually felt most strongly by the player who plays alongside him in the fourth round of a major: this time, at the PGA, Stephen Ames was burnt by it, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Boxing is sport stripped to its basics, absent of any pretence, the art of taking pain, and the science of giving it, the fighter at once both a sneering sadist and a resilient masochist. Every sporting truth, about digging deep, going the distance, taking it on the chin, coolness under fire, appears to have been forged in the unforgiving furnace of the ring.

All these truths fit Tiger Woods more snugly than one of his hundred throwaway gloves. Strip everything away, his red Nike shirt on Sundays, his Florida mansion, his library of corporate contracts, his powerful celebrity, peel aside the perfectly groomed, careful-what-he-says, manufactured icon and what’s there inside, what is the essence of the man? A fighter.

All year this year Woods has told us through his actions that he is fundamentally a pugilist. All year he has taken punches, second at the Masters, second at the US Open, losing the first to Zach Johnson, the second to Angel Cabrera, losing despite sharing the lead at some time during the fourth round, punches that hurt, that dismantled ever so slightly the aura he owns. And Woods, like boxers, knows that aura matters, that it suits him for rivals to fear him.

At the British Open, he arrived on the first tee in the second round, as he often does these days, with iron in hand, for the iron gives him adequate distance but mostly control (a control he has lacked with his driver), only to hook his iron wildly into a stream. This was as inexplicable as a boxer somehow inflicting a low blow on himself.

Woods finished the British in 12th position, at that point having gone three majors in 2007 without victory. Only in 1998, the year following his breakthrough at the 1997 Masters, and 2003 and 2004 when he slumped while altering his swing, had he gone an entire year without a major. For most of the year, Woods’ game in its entirety had eluded him, either the putter hemmed, or the driver hawed, or the irons hiccupped, and even last week his stats read 11th in driving distance, 161st in driving accuracy, 18th in putting average, 76th in sand saves, a Tiger not at his finest.

At 80 per cent, his golfing intelligence was enough to secure four tournament wins this year, but it was inadequate to secure a major. And only majors matter. Later, when he’d won the PGA Championship last week, the year’s final major, he’d say: “Any time you win a major championship in the year it’s always going to be a great year.”

Great fighters perform. They summon from the dark, dazzling corners of their being, from the crannies of the stomach, and mind, and heart, a great force that you cannot touch but certainly feel. Woods’ intensity is usually felt most strongly by the player who plays alongside him in the fourth round of a major: this time, at the PGA, Stephen Ames was burnt by it. He started the day only three shots behind Woods, but finished 10 shots back after imploding with a 76.

Woods gave a series of small demonstrations at the PGA Championships in Southern Hills Country Club in Oklahama. He showed that he’s always prepared and why being prepared counts. All year he’s been talking about his five-mile daily runs, sometimes twice a day, and in Southern Hills, as the thermometer heated up to 40 degrees, shirts feeling like cling-film, every forehead furrow a tiny rivulet of sweat, his fitness showed.

More than that, later, like a boxer reminding his opponent of the pain of a right cross, he drove the point home: “Physical fitness is always a huge advantage… I feel when I walked up 18 (on the final day) I felt the same way as I did going off the first tee. I felt great.”

He spoke about his running, saying “You pay the price. You go outwork everybody and days like today, or weeks like this week, it shows … Other guys may have gotten tired and you see their shoulders slumping and dragging a little bit; I feel fine.”

Woods also showed us that his exceptional talent, the sheer consistent mastery over successive shots, which he had not found with any regularity this year, still existed. And he demonstrated this with a staggering second-round 63, only a putt that God gently nudged away from the hole at the 18th denying him a 62, the lowest score ever in a major. This extraordinariness had escaped him most of the year, but in this final major, aware he needed something special after a first-round 71, he found it.

And finally, he showed us that as a frontrunner he has almost no equal, a superb bully when on top, a Sunday warrior soaked in experience. Starting the final day with a three-shot lead, Woods won by two shots, but in between his lead, having surged to five was reduced to one as Ernie Els and Woody Austin charged.

After a three-putt bogey at the 14th, Woods gave himself a mental dressing down, or a “serious yelling” as he put it, like a boxer aware that he’d lost a round and needed a quick comeback. And so he, brilliant predictably, birdied the 15th.

Woods has won so often, not just as a pro, but as a junior, as an amateur, that there’s virtually nothing he hasn’t seen, no situation, no shot, and this accumulated knowledge of a lifetime is his finest ally.

“I’ve been in so many different circumstances to try and win tournaments that you start getting a feel of how to do it. And sort of understanding it, and sort of understanding the feel and the art of winning…. And when I’m out in these championships, I can always rely on any of those times.”

Woods finished with a 69 on the final day, Austin with a 67, Els with a 66. Woods had his 13th major, and for the 13th time had won when leading after the third round. He is the ultimate finisher.

The 13th major was also one more step towards his Everest, Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. But the summit is some distance away, too far to even see. Five majors remain to equal Nicklaus, which is how many majors Seve Ballesteros took home in his whole career. Six majors must be taken to own the record outright, which is how many majors Nick Faldo won in an entire career. “When you first start your career,” Woods said, “18 is just a long way off ... and even though I’m at 13, it’s still a long way away.” So he can cuddle his daughter, and sign some contracts, and sleep in late for a few days, but then he will have to start running. To give the pain next year, he must take the pain from now. It is the only way the fighter knows.