Halfway home to a slam


The longest course in U.S. Open history was only a short stop for Tiger Woods on his way to a real Grand Slam. Another runaway victory in golf’s toughest test made it look inevitable.

What was billed as the “People’s Open” came down to one person. Woods captured the U.S. Open on Sunday and became the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the first two major championships of the year.

Woods showed the power and skill to reach the 13th green with a 2-iron from 237 meters (263 yards) for a birdie that smothered his final challenge. And he had the mental toughness, as always, to block out everything around him except the shiny trophy waiting for him at the end.

Earl Woods watched his 26-year-old son from his hotel room near the course, and recalled how he jangled coins in his pocket during the kid’s backswing and kicked his tee shots into bad lies, all designed to give him a killer instinct.

“I told him, ‘I promise you one thing: You’ll never meet another person as tough as you,”’ Dad said. “He hasn’t. And he won’t.”

This was plenty tough:

— Three-putt bogeys on the first two holes, giving Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia fleeting hope.

— A 49-minute rain delay, right when Woods faced the meat of the 6493-meter (7,214-yard) course.

— The first final round over par when he was in contention at a major.

But there he was again, doffing his cap and smiling during a ceremonial walk toward the 18th green.

Next stop on his incredible ride will be the British Open in Muirfield in five weeks.

“I would like to win the slam,” he said. “I’ve done it before. Hopefully, I can do it again.”

The only sour note was the ending — bogeys on two of his last three holes, including a meaningless three-putt in gathering darkness on the 18th for a 2-over 72.

It was the first time the U.S. Open was played on a truly public golf course, and the Black Course at Bethpage State Park certainly held its own. Woods was the only player to break par, at 3 under 277.

He still finished three strokes ahead of Mickelson, who is now 0-for-40 in the majors but hardly felt like a loser.

“It’s certainly a difficult challenge, five back to the best player in the world,” he said after closing with a 70.

Woods already has won his own version of the slam. A year ago, he became the first player to win four consecutive professional majors — the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship — although purists argue a real Grand Slam is winning all four in the same year.

“I had all four trophies on my mantle at the same time, and no one else has ever done that,” Woods said. “Call it what you want. This will be a different type of slam, I guess.”

Woods reached eight majors faster than anyone in history, and now has claimed seven of the last 11 — unprecedented in golf’s four biggest events.

He moved into a tie with Tom Watson for most majors in a career, and took one more step toward his ultimate goal, the record 18 professional majors that Nicklaus won.

Perhaps when the New Yorkers get their course back next week and pay US$39 greens fees on the weekend, they’ll have an even greater appreciation of how good this guy is.

“It’s awesome, winning your national title and, on top of that, on a public course in front of these fans,” Woods said.

Mickelson and Garcia each got to within two strokes at times, but not for long.

Woods simply gave them no chance. He missed only two fairways in the final round and putted for birdie on 17 out of 18 holes.

Even after his miscues at the start, he didn’t panic.

“I kept telling myself that I wasn’t playing bad,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. Get them out of your system.”

Mickelson and Garcia made more than a U.S. Open allows, especially when trying to track out the world’s best player.

Mickelson got to within two strokes of the lead with a two-putt birdie from the fringe on No. 13, which put him at 2-under par.

Woods answered with his two most important shots of the day.

He hit a perfect drive on the 449 meter (499-yard) 12th hole, the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history, to take bogey out of the equation. Then, he nailed another one on the 13th to put him in position for a two-putt birdie.

“I knew I still had some tough holes to play and couldn’t afford a mistake,” Woods said.

Mickelson made it easier for him with bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes.

It was Mickelson’s seventh top-3 finish in a major, tying him with Harry “Lighthorse” Cooper among players who have never won one.

Jeff Maggert had a 72 and finished third at 282, although he was never a factor.

Garcia was the only other player to make a run at Woods.

He got to within two strokes after Woods three-putted the first two holes, and stayed on his heels until the 22-year-old Spaniard made the kind of mistakes that a U.S. Open won’t allow. Three times he overshot the green, wound up in ankle-deep grass and couldn’t save par. Garcia had a 74 to finish fourth.

His only consolation was that Woods finally spoke to him — but only after the Open had been decided. Earlier in the round, Garcia tried to be his pal, even retrieving a divot for Woods on the fourth hole.

Woods never looked at him. This was Sunday in a major championship, and Woods had only one thing on his mind.

Nick Faldo made the most of a special exemption by closing with a 66-73 on the week to tie for fifth, earning him a trip back next year.

Scott Hoch, who said his goal was to break 80 the first time he saw Bethpage Black, made an ace on the 207-yard 17th hole for a 69 and also tied for fifth at 285.

Woods became only the fifth player to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year. The others were Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951, 1953), Arnold Palmer (1960) and Nicklaus in 1972.

Nicklaus went for the third leg at Muirfield, but finished second by one stroke to Lee Trevino, his chief rival at the time.