Tiger's trail is tough to follow

  • Follow Scott Michaux

TULSA, Okla. - Kyle French must have drawn the short straw with his two college buddies.

Things didn't go as planned for Scott Verplank on Saturday as he hits off a bridge near the 13th fairway. Verplank shot 74 playing with Tiger Woods and is seven shots behind the leader.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Things didn't go as planned for Scott Verplank on Saturday as he hits off a bridge near the 13th fairway. Verplank shot 74 playing with Tiger Woods and is seven shots behind the leader.

With the heat reaching its most oppressive level of the week at Southern Hills, French was walking around in a full length tiger suit.

Scott Plaster and David Miller had on safari shirts and shorts. On their respective pith helmets were taped labels reading "OGILVY" and "VERPLANK."

"We thought of this driving down," said Plaster, a 19-year-old freshman at Oklahoma. "We could be Tiger chasers."

"I'm going to catch him, by God!" said Miller, a.k.a. Verplank.

"I'm here to get famous," said French, sipping from the tube attached to the 100 ounces of water in the backpack concealed by the tiger costume.

Assuming French survived the day without melting, his buddies can strip the tape off their helmets and write two new names. "AMES" and "AUSTIN" are the new contestants in the least exciting contest in sports.

Chasing Tiger Woods on the weekend of a major championship is the most futile eternal exercise since Sisyphus was condemned to push his boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll back down on him every time.

Just ask one of the most frequent and frustrated Tiger chasers in the world, Ernie Els.

"If I was not a golfer, a fan on the couch, I'd be putting my house on him," said Els, who's six behind heading into today's final round of the PGA Championship.

Everybody knows the numbers by now. Woods is 12-0 holding a 54-hole lead in the majors. He's 39-3 lifetime as a closer.

Els, however, is ready to push the boulder with everyone else up and down Southern Hills, hoping for a different result.

"The statistics will tell you, yes, it is over," he said. "But as a competitor, I can't sit there and tell you it's over. I can't ever do that."

Thus the final round of the PGA Championship will resume as scheduled this afternoon even though everybody knows the odds of Woods not retaining possession of the Wanamaker Trophy are somewhere between slim and nil.

After all, Woods is 23-0 on tour when holding more than a one-shot lead entering the final round. He's three up on Stephen Ames, four up on Woody Austin and five up on John Senden. Quality golfers all of them, but not exactly a Murderer's Row.

Saturday seemed to present a more daunting challenge for Woods, with Scott Verplank and Geoff Ogilvy in close pursuit. After all, one of them was a fairway-and-green machine and the other won last year's U.S. Open.

But they suffered the fate of so many other chasers, shooting matching 74s to be the only players currently among the top 15 to shoot over par when they had a chance to compete with the world's No. 1.

If there's any hope at all it's that Woods failed to win twice already this year from the final group. He didn't hold the overnight lead, but he held a share of it at some point on Sunday at both the Masters Tournament and U.S. Open and finished second in both. Of course, the two players who started the days ahead of him - Stuart Appleby and Aaron Baddeley - tripped out of the gates with opening double bogeys and wilted.

Into that cauldron steps Ames, a surly adopted Canadian who learned the hard way about poking Tiger. Calling Woods "beatable" before their WGC-Match Play match in 2006, Ames was on the wrong end of a 9-and-8 whipping that sent a message nobody has forgotten.

"He has that influence on players," Ames said. "It's probably going to happen to me. I don't know. I haven't been in this situation."

Neither has Austin, who came within his own bogey and an Ames birdie on the 18th of being in the wingman's seat today with Woods.

"People always ask if your intimidated by Tiger," Austin said. "What, are we going to get into a fight? He's 12 years younger and a lot stronger than me and would kick my butt. But I have a chance to win a major. That's what intimidates me. Golf intimidates me every day."

Whether it's intimidation or not, players chasing Tiger rarely fare well. The only two guys to ever catch him on Sunday in majors are Bob May (2000 PGA) and Chris DiMarco (2005 Masters Tournament), and both ended up losing in a playoff. On Sundays at majors with the lead in hand, Woods averages 69.25. His playing partners average 72.92.

"The last thing in the world he can imagine is him giving anything up," Stewart Cink said. "He has such a disdain for making bogeys or falling back to the field. If he's five up, he wants to be six up. He's never thinking about maintaining a lead or trying not to let anybody closer, he's always thinking build more, build more.

"I'm sure to him it's second nature, but it's also human nature for the rest of us to think let's start protecting. You won't see Tiger do that very often. That's not in his wiring."

Woods had two goals on Saturday with the entire field chasing - shoot under par and increase his lead.

Check on both counts.

"Positive day all around," he surmised.

Ogilvy said Friday that Woods can't keep winning from the front forever. Somebody is bound to beat him one of these days.

"I'm assuming that as he gets older, his skills will diminish," Verplank said Saturday. "Of course, he may quit before then."

And what are the chances those skills might diminish enough by this afternoon?

"I'd say not very good if you want to know the truth," said Verplank. "If you're trying to win a tournament like this, he's the wrong guy to let get out ahead of you."

Unless Woods is forced to wear French's costume, that's the reality all Tiger chasers face.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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