Woods makes second place look tough

So if you are U.S. captain Hal Sutton, with whom do you pair Tiger Woods in Ryder Cup alternate-shot play? Paul Bunyon? The only person good enough to hit recovery shots from some of the places Woods drove the ball at the NEC Invitational is Tiger Woods. Forget about finding fairways at Firestone Country Club; the way Woods drove it over the weekend he would have had a difficult time keeping the ball in Yellowstone. This tournament should have been on the Discovery Channel, not CBS. I can hear it now: "This week: In search of Tiger's golf ball." The amazing thing, the astounding thing, is that Woods had a hard time keeping the ball in Ohio yet shot 70-69 on the weekend and finished T-2 in a first-class field. Now that's entertainment. When Tiger was Tiger, during that phenomenal stretch from late 1999 through the 2002 U.S. Open, you couldn't take your eyes off of him. Even though he was winning major championships by record margins, eliminating all drama, the compelling subplot was all the amazing shots he was hitting. It was worth tuning in not so much to see who would win -- we knew it would be Tiger -- but to see by how much and what highlight-film shot he would hit this week. Now, Woods is not winning. But some of the shots he is hitting are well worth the price of admission. When Woods stands over a tee shot now it is sort of like watching an actor walk onto the stage with no clue what lines to recite. There is an electric excitement in watching a person of genius improvise. Virtually nothing has happened the way Woods scripted it over the last two years, yet somehow he manages to ad lib his way to respectable finishes on some very demanding venues. All of us who play the game know that awful feeling of standing over a drive and having no idea where it is going to end up. The problem for the rest of us -- and for many of the guys Woods competes against on the PGA Tour -- is that we do not have the ability to erase our mistakes as cleanly as Tiger does. Time after time at Firestone, Woods drove the ball off the map and then either muscled it out of shoe-covering rough or hooked it around a stand of trees or elevated it over a towering tree. Time after time he knocked in a 9-footer to save par. On No. 16 on Sunday -- the par-5 that was over 600 yards even before players started hitting it a mile -- Woods hit a ball so far right it would have been a bad drive on No. 17, the parallel hole. He dropped the club in disgust on his backswing, picked up the offending implement and, holding it near the head, swung the grip through some leaves. Then he tossed the club, his glove and likely a few blue words in the direction of Steve Williams, his caddie. Yes, Woods is showing signs of displeasure with his level of play. And it does seem as if he has stopped saying he is close to having his A-game back. In a strange way, Woods may be gaining more fans with the way he is playing. There is something very compelling about an athlete who struggles his way to success rather than one who seems to be able to get where he is going simply by putting it on automatic pilot. Woods is discovering what John Daly and Phil Mickelson found out long ago: The fans find it fun to pull for a guy who doesn't always get it done. In Zen philosophy there is a line that near perfection is more beautiful than perfection because it is attainable. We also probably relate to near-perfection better because we are all far from perfect. We understand. We get it. Truth be told, Woods' phenomenal streak of 130 PGA Tour events without missing a cut should have ended at Shinnecock Hills in the U.S. Open. In the first two days of that tournament, Woods made at least six up-and-down par saves from places where virtually no one else could make par. What we see in Woods each time out now is not the mind-boggling brilliance with which he spoiled us in his 30-month run of perfection but rather occasional bursts of creativity that ultimately might end up making us appreciate him even more. What we have learned this summer is that Woods is capable of even more shots that we knew, and that he is an even more determined competitor than we thought. One of my favorite sports memories from childhood was watching a veteran baseball player pitch on a hot, humid day in August when he did not have his good stuff. This was back when ballplayers wore flannel and starting pitchers were expected to throw nine innings. I have memories of Bob Friend, who threw for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960s, drenched in sweat, laboring to trick the hitters when his fastball had slowed and his breaking ball had lost its bite. That's when we really find out what an athlete is all about -- not when things are going well, but when things are going badly. When Woods finished on Sunday at Akron he was asked what we are to make of the fact that he can play as erratically as he did at Firestone and still finish second. "That I fight," Woods said. Of that there is absolutely no doubt. Then he added a postscript that makes you wonder how long it will take to get his A-game back. "I've got to shoot commercials this week," he said. "So I've got some work to do." He also has a lot of work to do on the golf course. Meantime, you've got to wonder if Sutton might just have his players draw straws and whoever gets the short one gets Woods in alternate-shot play. Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine

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