For any other player, it would have been a career-defining moment. For Tiger Woods, it was just another Sunday — even if those Sunday moments have become a little more rare lately.
Woods was in contention for his 73rd win to tie Jack Nicklaus for second on the all-time list, nine behind Sam Snead, and in just another example of Woods' incredible flair for the dramatic, he was at Jack's tournament, the Memorial, with the Golden Bear calling the action from the booth. He found himself a single shot out of the lead when he airmailed the green at Muirfield's par-3 16th hole, leaving himself an impossibly delicate chip shot from a fluffy, scraggly lie. Then, like so many times before, the magic happened. Woods' full-swing flop shot out Mickelson'd anything Lefty could summon, landing softly and perfectly and trickling into the hole for a birdie.
Tiger's host was suitably impressed.
"I just said out here a couple times, that under the circumstances, the circumstances being Tiger has been struggling, he found himself in a position in a tournament, and it was either fish or cut bait, he had one place to land the ball, he's playing a shot that if he leaves it short, he's going to leave himself again a very difficult shot, if he hits it long, he's going to probably lose the tournament," Nicklaus said afterwards. "He lands the ball exactly where it has to land. It doesn't make a difference whether it went in the hole or not. Going in the hole was a bonus. But what a shot. I don't think under the circumstances I've ever seen a better shot."
Playing partner Rickie Fowler, who was in the process of imploding with a final-round 84 — 17 shots worse than Woods' 67 — took time off from calculating his score to enjoy the moment. "He had obviously a shot that — I guess not lucky, but you hit a good shot to get it inside 10 feet, and it came out perfect, landed kind of right on the crown of that ridge there, and the rest is history," Fowler said. "I mean, he obviously loves being in the moment, and that's where he kind of gets down, focuses and hits those shots. It was fun to see."
In case you missed it, here's the shot:
But there was more to his final-round 67 than one hero shot. Woods put a stamp on one of the best ball-striking weeks of his career, a week when he led the field in greens in regulation (73.6%).
He even impressed himself. "Boy, I hit it good today," Woods said. "That was some good stuff out there. I never really missed a shot today. It was just, as Sean (instructor Sean Foley) likes to say, go out there and put on a stripe show, and I did today. I hit it great, and I had the pace of the greens really nice today, where I struggled yesterday, and made a few putts."
Obviously, there's a little tournament in a couple of weeks at San Francisco's Olympic Club that Woods would dearly love to win, as he chases his personal Holy Grail — Nicklaus' 18 major championships. Woods thinks the current state of his game bodes well for his U.S. Open chances. "I'm excited because of the way I hit the golf ball this week," he said. "I hit the ball really well. At Olympic we're all going to have to hit the ball great there. That golf course, you can look at the history of guys who were in contention or who ended up winning, all were wonderful drivers of the golf ball and good, solid iron players. That's what it's going to take there at Olympic, more so than most U.S. Open sites."
Obviously, Tiger still has what it takes. He's still four away from Jack, but 19 majors are in play again.
A look at Kyle Stanley, Rickie Fowler and Bud Cauley
Kyle Stanley had come oh-so-close. He had the 2011 John Deere Classic in his hip pocket after a final-round 66, only to have Steve Stricker pick that pocket with a spectacular bunker shot on the 18th hole. And then, in even more heartbreaking fashion, Stanley saw the 2012 Farmers Insurance Open trophy slip through his fingers with a playoff loss to Brandt Snedeker. But persistence pays off, as Stanley proved with his stunning come-from-behind win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Behind by eight shots when the final day began, Stanley shot a stunning 65 to overtake Spencer Levin and earn his first PGA Tour win. Shot by shot on a magical Sunday, Stanley transformed his tomorrows.
“You go from a very low point to a high point,” Stanley said after the biggest day of his young career. “I’m not sure I expected to maybe recover this quickly. ... I think the biggest challenge was seeing if I could put last week behind me. I think I did.”
Stanley stands at the vanguard of young players on the verge of PGA Tour dominance, players who challenge fairways and attack flags with style and confidence.
A former ACC Player of the Year at Clemson, the 24-year-old Stanley did everything but win last season. He had four top 10s and nine top 25s. He finished 55th on the PGA Tour money list and earned more than $1.5 million.
There will be adjustments in 2012. Stanley lost caddie Bobby Brown, who went back to his former boss Dustin Johnson. But one thing won’t change — Stanley’s commitment to winning.
“The biggest thing is I really, really care about what I do out on the golf course,” he said, “and sometimes I care to a fault. I’ve just got to relax a little bit and trust in my preparation.”
Rickie Fowler is another of those “Young Guns” loaded for bear in 2012. Fowler already is a well-known name, with his colorful attire, his 2010 Ryder Cup appearance and his “damn the torpedoes” approach. A Walker Cup teammate to Stanley in 2007, Fowler was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in 2010 and became the youngest U.S. player ever to compete in the Ryder Cup. He shared some spotlight again last summer when he finished fifth at the British Open. All the notoriety and accomplishments notwithstanding, he is still chasing his first PGA Tour win.
For the former Oklahoma State star, seeing young players like 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley crack the shell offers inspiration. “It’s a bit of motivation for myself to kind of stand up and get my game where I want to it to be and be in contention,” Fowler, 23, said. “I feel like that’s the reason why a lot of us play, is we love being in contention and winning golf tournaments.”
Bud Cauley, 21, is another newcomer hoping to parlay a fearless game into professional success. A three-time All-American at the University of Alabama, Cauley defeated Fowler, then the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, at the 2009 U.S. Amateur.
Cauley turned pro after the NCAA Championships last spring and earned $735,150 in eight starts, good enough to skip Q-school and go directly to the PGA Tour. But Cauley knows that distinction simply opens the door. He has to be successful to stick around, and he is headed in the right direction with three top-30 finishes in his first three starts of 2012.
There were 14 first-time winners on the PGA Tour last season. In 2012, there could be at least three more. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but obviously with what the guys did last year, a lot of the rookies had a lot of success,” Cauley said. “You go out there and everyone has the same opportunity to win and just everyone does their own specific things in their games to try to be successful.”
As Stanley proved, for Fowler and Cauley, it’s only a matter of time.