DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer TULSA, Okla.
The stars were aligned for Tiger Woods to win the final major of the year. So were the flags. It's not like Woods needed any help at the PGA Championship. He had a three-shot lead going into the final round and a history of never losing any tournament when the margin was more than one. But as he rapped the last of his practice putts Sunday, his Kiwi caddie noticed the flags atop the bleachers that represented the countries of every player at Southern Hills. They had been fluttering in the breeze, then suddenly went limp except for two of them. One was the United States, the other New Zealand. "Now that's what I call an omen," Steve Williams said. Williams turned out to be right about the PGA Championship. There were some hairy moments for Woods, such as his three-putt on the 14th green that trimmed his lead to one shot as Woody Austin and Ernie Els made a spirited run to catch him. Woods, however, showed why he is the best clutch putter in golf with a 10- footer on the next hole that sent him to his 13th major. But that's not the only thing Woods locked up. Woods' season is not over, but it sure felt that way as he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy, the heaviest prize among the four majors. All that remains for him is the conclusion of the FedEx Cup, the Presidents Cup, a trip to Bermuda for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf and his year-end Target World Challenge. All that figures to do is pad his bank account and pour money into his Tiger Woods Learning Center. It might also provide a few more pretty photo ops for Woods, wife Elin and 2-month-old Sam Alexis. No matter what happens, the year already belongs to Woods. He already has won five times on the PGA Tour, no one else has won more than twice, and a major championship for the third straight season, pushing his total to 13 and inching him closer to the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus. Even if someone sweeps the FedEx Cup events, Woods is virtually a lock to win the points-based PGA of America award. His victory Sunday was good news for the PGA of America (can you imagine the PGA Grand Slam of Golf being contested by Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington and Woody Austin?) And not so good for the PGA Tour. It's hard to imagine the winner of the FedEx Cup trumping anything Woods has done in the traditional golf season. Along with winning the PGA Championship, he was runner-up at the Masters and the U.S. Open, and he was the only player who finished under par in the four majors, one of the toughest collections of courses in some time. Woods also won two World Golf Championships, and the Wachovia Championship was the toughest field of any regular tour event. All indications are that Woods will skip the first playoff event next week in New York. That won't kill the FedEx Cup, but it certainly will delay the interest until round two outside Boston. Then again, Woods has always measured his year by the majors. "Any time you win a major championship in the year, it's always going to be a great year," he said. "And this certainly is." Woods doesn't stop playing after the PGA Championship, but he made it clear five years ago that majors are what matters. It was a week before the Ryder Cup, at a WGC event in Ireland, when he switched from Titleist to Nike irons. He was asked why he chose that week to switch clubs. "Off the record?" He said. "Because the majors are over." Then he was asked for a comment on the record. Woods paused and smiled. "Because the majors are over." Winning at Southern Hills debunked a couple of theories about Woods. Some are still hung up over the notion that he struggles when the course plays to a par 70. His only other major on a par 70 was at Bethpage Black, although he won at Firestone a week earlier by eight shots, and that might have played even tougher than Southern Hills. Others felt that Southern Hills and other classic designs that have tree-lined fairways and sharp doglegs do not suit is eye. Woods pointed out that his head was a mess when he was here for the '96 Tour Championship (his father was hospitalized with chest pains), and that he simply wasn't hitting the ball where he wanted for the U. S. Open six years ago when he tied for 12th. "I played to the same spots. Stevie and I had the same strategy. Nothing has changed," Woods said. "Just executed better." Attention now turns to Nicklaus' record in the majors. Woods has won five of the last 12, not quite as stout at that 7-for-11 streak he went on from late 1999 to the middle of the 2002, but the venues over the next few years play right into his hands. He is a perennial favorite at Augusta National, where he has won four times. The U.S. Open will be played next year at Torrey Pines, where Woods has won five PGA Tour events, then it goes to Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach, two courses that brought him his U.S. Open victories. Woods finished one shot out of a playoff in 1998 at Royal Birkdale, where the British Open will be held next year, and St. Andrews is back in the rotation for 2010. The PGA Championship travels next year to Oakland Hills, which brings mixed memories. That was where Woods went 2-3-0 in the Ryder Cup three years ago. He played the U. S. Open there as a 20-year-old amateur in 1996 and had a share of the lead on the back nine of the first round until he imploded on his way to a 76. He made the cut by shooting 69 the next day. Woods never imagined he would have 13 majors at age 31, and the Nicklaus standard still seems far away. He could only guarantee one thing about his pursuit of the Golden Bear. "You can't get it done in one year," he said. But it might be closer than anyone thinks.