Woods a Fair Imitation of His Former Self

By: Marino Parascenzo

On the mound running along the nasty little 17th at the Players Championship, the fans drape over the slope like bees in swarm. They are nothing like that community institution at the 16th at the Phoenix Open, which prides itself on being beery, loud and obnoxious. The fans at TPC Sawgrass are a convivial group, and pretty much polite and respectful, the way the books say golf fans ought to be. And they are quite busy, chatting and handing something back and forth - money.

They're betting. They're betting on the golfers coming through, on whether they hit the 17th green. Or more precisely, stay on the green. The 17th is the infamous Devil's Island, a par-3 of a mere 137 yards, with only a narrow walkway connecting the green to the mainland, and it's the darling of golf ball manufacturers.

It's said that about 100,000 balls a year are pulled from these waters - from visitors, mostly, but the pros make their contributions in the Players each year. In the recent Players, money must have flown like side bets at an alley craps game at the approach of Sergio Garcia. And what he did at the 17th in the final round led us back to a question that has become a soap opera title: "Is Tiger Back?"

It arises every time Tiger Woods wins, and it's far more than just the stuff of soap opera. It's a raw, naked prayer in the world of golf. A winning Tiger Woods can mean money all around. It means higher TV ratings, higher ad rates, more equipment sales, increased interest in golf, etc. It might even revive a game that's treading water, or worse.

Woods scored his fourth victory of the season at the Players. Surely, this time, Tiger Woods was back. The prayer was answered. This was the old Tiger Woods, before the Crash of '09, who, with a mere look, could melt a pretender. Who drew his sword and swept all before him.

That's probably the way Woods' fans saw it at the Players. That the pretenders, unable to stand up to the heat, fell away, one by one, and most especially Sergio Garcia, who confesses no love or caring for Woods. Didn't Garcia, with a great chance to beat Woods, collapse under the pressure at the 17th, putting two in the water? And then hit another into the water at the 18th, just to complete the crash? Of course, Jeff Maggert, a surprise contender at 49, also cracked and hit the water at the 17th. And the unknown rookie from Sweden, David Lingmerth, 25, also wilted.

Taking a closer look at Woods' accomplishments is a risky business. His faithful prefer that everything be accepted on faith. Anyone who doesn't is just another Tiger-Hater. But could we just take a peek, anyway? After all, as Woods himself likes to say, "It is what it is."

It should be noted that if there was any cracking, Woods cracked first. He blew a two-shot lead with a double-bogey at the 14th. Then at one point down the final stretch, Woods, Garcia, Lingmerth and Maggert were tied for the lead at 12-under. This was the setting for Woods' victory.

The first contender to go was the surprising Maggert, who's looking forward to the Champions Tour. At the 17th, which he'd already played in two pars and a birdie, a thin 9-iron tee shot and a gust of wind brought him down short into the water. He double-bogeyed. (Unmelted, he birdied the 18th for a 70 and tied for second.)

Lingmerth should have folded much earlier. The rookie was making only his 13th start on the PGA Tour. He had missed eight cuts, the last five in a row coming into the Players. But he still had a chance to win at the 18th. A lengthy birdie putt would have tied Woods. But he missed it long, then missed the return and bogeyed for a 72 and tied for second.

It came down to Woods and Garcia and the 17th. The key to the finish was the pin at the 17th - at the far right-front corner, just behind a little bunker and close to the water. Here, the narrow chances of the 17th become microscopic.

Play it safe or go for the birdie? Woods was among the folks gambling at the 17th. He was betting on the come. That was clear when he was content to play for a par. He wouldn't risk that pin. He hit the fat of the green and two-putted from 47 feet for par. He was betting that Garcia would challenge that pin, though, and it could make the difference. He knew his man.

There would be those who say that Garcia choked at the 17th. They don't know Garcia. He'll stick his head in the lion's mouth. He went right at that pin. And he came down just a tad short. He reloaded and still wouldn't play safe. He thought a good tee shot and one-putt could still give him a 4 and he'd stay alive. He went at it again. He was short again. He made 7 and was dead. He went on to water his tee shot at the 18th, and made a double-bogey 6 to fall into a tie for eighth.

It may not suit the drama of the moment, but the fact is that the challengers did make errors. There was not a whole lot of swooning and choking and turning to stone in the battle with Woods. Woods did not sweep all before him this time. He won by prudently staying dry and making safe pars on the last two holes. This doesn't detract from his win, but it doesn't add any zip to the legend, either.

Woods was wise to play safe over the last two holes. There are still some suspicious quirks in his game, and they arise at bad times. Back at the 14th, for example, when he blew the two-shot lead with a double. His tee shot was a towering pop-up that hooked badly into the water. That kind of shot is not a total stranger to him these days. And rare is the pro who will miss the green with a short-iron, but he did at the 15th, with a 9-iron. Then his chip was creaky and he had to sink an 8-footer to save par. And at the 18th, with a comfortable two-shot lead, his 12-foot try for birdie died a foot short. A medium-range putt that weak is not characteristic of his game.

Woods made the par for a 70, finishing at 13-under and winning by two for his fourth title of 2013. Then he addressed rumors of his demise before the media.

"I know a lot of people in this room thought I was done," he said in the interview room. "But I'm not."

It's hard to believe that anyone thought Woods was done. Rather, the question was, is he back? And the answer is - no, not really. But if he never gets back, he's still giving a fair imitation.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.