Sergio stalks, Tiger makes a great escape

It was unbelievable, then excruciating to watch Tiger Woods and his game disintegrating at the PGA Championship - last of golf's four major contests - Sunday at Medinah, Ill.

Please, somebody show him which end of the club to strike the ball with.

If he blew a five-shot lead with just seven holes to play and lost to some whippersnapper from Spain who hit his best shot of the day with his eyes closed, would Woods be scarred for his career?

But en route to defeat, the oddest thing happened: Woods won.

The lessons in this monumental accomplishment are many.

Central is that in sport, as well as in life, few things are more difficult than hanging on and hanging in when things are going poorly. Woods had the perfect opportunity to sigh and concede on the 16th hole when Sergio Garcia hit his tee shot up against a tree. Common sense combined with wisdom dictated Garcia knock the ball safely back into reasonable playing position and then rely on a noteworthy approach to the green.

That was when the teenager, who has been a pro only three months, took a flailing, roundhouse, off-balance swing with his eyes wide shut. The ball was next spotted some 170 yards distant, ensconced on the green. With that, the struggling Woods had ample evidence that life is not fair and this shot proved it.

Phooey, Woods could have reasoned, I'll win other majors other days but not this day. After all, back on the 13th, Woods posted a horrific double bogey 5 while Garcia was posting a glittery birdie 2.

But Woods, who has gone through roily times with his temperament, somehow gathered himself and persevered.

On the next to last hole, the 17th, he inexplicably hit a poor tee shot, which produced a poor approach to the green, which in turn left him with a knee-knocking eight-foot putt. It was, by any measure, dreadfully tricky. If he missed, Woods would be tied with the flamboyantly delightful Garcia, who was the fan favorite. And given the way things were evolving, Woods would then see nothing but Garcia's taillights.

But, calmly, professionally - yes, wonderfully - Woods craftily rolled the putt in. It was a triumph of spirit over dismay, of steel nerves over a racing heart. Woods simply kept his head when many would have lost theirs.

There are those who contend Woods's finest moment in his four years as a pro was scorching the Masters field in 1997 and earning a smashing win. Not so fast. Sunday at Medinah was better. That's because we were allowed to see whether Woods, deep inside, truly has the right stuff or just some stuff.

At the 1997 Masters, Woods played grandly. At Medinah, he was contending with all manner of demons, including a ebullient Garcia hitting fantasy shots and igniting fan affection.

Interesting. After all, Woods has an enormous following, too. He is young, bright (Stanford education), a brand name (Nike has contributed mightily), rich (the leading money winner this year with $3.2 million plus much more in outside business deals), famous (wearing the name Tiger helps), and really good (10 PGA wins, two majors, currently ranked No. 1).

On the other hand, Garcia is young. Other descriptives for him await time.

But Garcia does have the look of a tiger, or even Tiger. He has a swagger that somehow isn't arrogant to go with his game that will make you weep. When he met the legendary golfer Byron Nelson last year, Garcia took off his hat out of respect, then knelt down so Nelson wouldn't have to look up to him.

Many teenagers would have no idea who Nelson is (he won a record 11 straight tournaments in 1945, 18 during that year), much less the class to acknowledge it.

Already, there are those in the media saying the Tiger-Sergio duel will define the early 2000s, as Palmer-Nicklaus once did in another time. Perhaps.

At this point, Woods has achievement and Garcia has promise. The sports landscape is littered with those who might have been. But while Garcia catapulted himself to our attention, the focus for the moment belongs on Woods. He was true to himself, and he showed us what staying the course is all about.

An emotionally spent Woods said afterward, "You've got to expect the best out of your competitor." Garcia understands that.

The lessons are clear for anyone who wants to absorb them.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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