Pops looks down on No. 11

Monday, July 24, 2006

An emotional Tiger Woods pocketed his first major title since his father's death in June.

HOYLAKE, England -- Tiger Woods bottled up his emotions when he buried his father in May. Even as he stalked the brown, baked links of the British Open on Sunday, his steely focus never wavered.

Until he tapped in his final putt.

That gave him his third claret jug, his 11th major championship, but the first victory he couldn't share with Pops.

And that was all too much for him.

"I saw this coming last night," said Steve Williams, the caddie and confidante who stood with him at Earl Woods' gravesite. "He played at the Masters, and it was the only time I saw him try too hard. Today, there was a calmness about him. No doubt he wanted to win this for him."

Woods plucked the ball from the cup after a 5-under 67 gave him a two-shot victory over Chris DiMarco. His face awash in sadness and satisfaction, he thrust both arms in the air and screamed, "Yes!" He buried his head in Williams' shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably, chest heaving. Tears streamed down both cheeks as he hugged his wife, Elin, for the longest minute.

The emotions that poured out of him on the 18th green were as inevitable as his victory at Royal Liverpool.

"I've never done that," Woods said. "But at that moment, it just came pouring out. I was pretty bummed out after not winning the Masters, because I knew that was the last major he was ever going to see. That one hurt a little bit. And to get this one ... it's just unfortunate he wasn't here to see it."

It sure would have looked familiar.

Woods was ruthless as ever, running his record to 11-0 in the major when he has the lead going into the final round. And when DiMarco closed to within one shot with a mixture of birdies and a 50-foot par save, Woods fired off three straight birdies to put him away.

"He's got an uncanny ability, when somebody gets close to him, to just turn it up another level," DiMarco said.

Woods became the first player since Tom Watson in 1982 and 1983 to win golf's oldest championship in consecutive years.

He captured his 11th major at age 30, tied with Walter Hagen for second on the career list, one step closer to the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus, the benchmark that drives Woods.

"He knows how to win these things," said Ernie Els, who shot 71 and finished third. "And it's going to be tough to beat him now."

It was only the third time Woods has played since his father died May 3 after a brutal bout with cancer. Some questioned whether he could regain his focus after taking nine weeks off, especially after his 76-76 at the U.S. Open to miss the cut for the first time in a major.

Some took issue with his strategy for Hoylake, hosting a British Open for the first time in 39 years. Woods hit driver only once -- on the 16th hole of the first round -- instead staying well short of the bunkers and relying on iron play so impeccable that his caddie kept a list of all the shots his boss missed during the week.

It was a short list, indeed.

There was that 6-iron that missed the 14th green on Thursday, a 7-iron into the bunker at No. 7 on Saturday, and the 4-iron that went long and left at No. 12 on Sunday, leading to his only bogey of the final round.

"I don't think anyone has ever hit long irons that well," Williams said.

He still had to work hard for this one because of DiMarco, a familiar foe coping with similar grief from a more recent loss.

DiMarco's mother, Norma, died of a heart attack July 4 in Colorado, and he made sure his father joined him on this trip to the northwest of England as a chance to heal. DiMarco, who pushed Woods into a playoff at the Masters last year, did all he could to deliver an unlikely victory.

"I had a lot of divine intervention out there," DiMarco said. "I had my mother with me all week."

Woods put him away on the most daunting hole at Royal Liverpool, a long iron that stopped 8 feet away on the 14th for a birdie. DiMarco kept making putts and so did Woods, making birdies from 8 feet on the 15th and two-putting from 25 feet on the par-5 16th.

Woods finished at 18-under 270, missing an 8-foot birdie putt that would have matched his record (19 under) set at St. Andrews six years ago.

His father was with him for his first taste of links golf in the 1995 Scottish Amateur at Carnoustie, when Woods was a 19-year-old amateur. As he walked up the 18th fairway with a two-shot lead, his ball safely behind the green, memories of Dad poured forth.

"After the last putt, I realized my dad's never going to see this again, and I wish he could have seen this one last time," Woods said at the trophy presentation. "He was out there today keeping me calm. I had a very calm feeling the entire week, especially today."

Masters champion Phil Mickelson finished before the leaders even began the final round. Coming off his collapse in the U.S. Open, he was never a factor during the weekend and closed with a 70 to finish 13 shots behind in a tie for 22nd.

Even with so many players in contention on the gustiest day of the week, it didn't take long to sort out the contenders.

Jim Furyk, two shots behind and the only U.S. Open victim who contended at Royal Liverpool, dropped shots on his first two holes and quickly fell out of the race. He wound up with a 71 to finish fourth.

But the biggest slide belonged to Sergio Garcia.

With his best chance ever to prove he could stand toe-to-toe with Woods, the 26-year-old Spaniard had three-putt bogeys on the second and third holes to slip three shots behind. Then he found a fairway bunker on the par-5 fifth and had to scramble for par as Woods was making eagle.

Garcia closed with a 73, the second time this year he has played with Woods in the final group and didn't break par.

Els had a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fifth to join Woods at 13 under, but that didn't last long. Woods threaded an iron up the front of the fifth green to 25 feet, then raised his putter aloft in his left hand when the eagle putt fell.

It was an icy, methodical way to celebrate such a big putt, but that's what Woods brought to the links for the final round.

He had a plan -- control his tee shots with a 2-iron or 3-wood -- and he stuck to it. This was Woods at his absolute dullest, which was how he mapped out his final round. Warm applause followed him around Hoylake as he found fairways and the middle of the green, taking advantage of the par 5s.

Only when DiMarco applied the heat did Woods respond.

It was his 49th career victory, and the $1.3 million for first place put him atop the money list and pushed him over $60 million for his career.

Woods now has three British Open titles, the same as Nicklaus, and his victory at Hoylake carried another comparison. The first major Nicklaus won after his father died in 1970 also was the British Open.

What would Earl Woods have thought of this victory?

"He would have been very proud," Woods said. "He was always on my case about thinking my way around the golf course and not letting emotions get the better of you."

He didn't. Not until he had the claret jug firmly in his grasp.

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