Great debate: Did Tiger choke?

         A few thoughts and shots left over from the 91st PGA Championship:
         Did he or didn’t he choke?
         That’s the question that has been hotly debated since Y.E. Yang took down Tiger Woods in Sunday’s shocking conclusion at Hazeltine National.
         The furor erupted after nationally syndicated columnist Jay Mariotti, he of AOL Sports, and ESPN Sports fame, slapped the C-word on Woods in the aftermath of arguably the best major drama of 2009.
          Here was the way Mariotti spun it:
          It was the moment that couldn’t happen, the day Woods relinquished a 54-hole lead in a major, the one place in time when the greatest golfer of his generation – prepare yourself for what I’m about to say here – CHOKED away the 91st PGA Championship and let a hungrier, more focused, more composed golfer kick the stuffing out of him.   
         Wrong. Tiger didn’t “choke,’’ he got beat. And this is why guys who don’t cover golf for a living should be careful what they write. Oftentimes these shoot-from-the-hip columnists who like to stir up the golf pot don’t really understand the nuances of the game.
         Sure, Tiger let a two-shot lead going into the final round get away for the first time ever in a major. But Woods didn’t choke it away; Yang took it from him.
         That’s golf, a game where you can’t control what the other guy will do. And the South Korean did a lot, like the chip-in eagle at the 14th hole, where Woods was waiting impatiently to make a short birdie putt, and then at the 18th hole, where Yang stuffed a 3-wood from a ridiculous position in the fairway – first cut of rough, over a tree to a tucked pin — while Woods was contemplating his second shot to square the match and force a playoff.
         Granted, Tiger couldn’t make the putts when they counted, but that’s not choking. Choking, as I understand it, would be more like Kenny Perry’s finish in the Masters this year, where he led by two shots with two holes to play and then made back-to-back bogeys, including a skulled chip at the 17th where Perry admitted his hand shook, and a bladed chip at the second hole in OT that cost him the green jacket.
         Which is not to say Tiger didn’t blow this opportunity to win the PGA. But you can blow it, Jay, without choking it away.  
         If golf needed a “stimulus package’’ it got one when Yang turned the golf world upside down by beating the previously unbeatable Woods.
         Yes, it was a 9.9 on golf’s Richter Scale. The proof was in the TV ratings, which soared 88 percent from a year ago, when Padraig Harrington won and Woods was home on the couch nursing his repaired knee.
         To put Yang’s upset of Woods in further perspective: 35.7 million viewers watched all or part of the final round, or about 16.7 million viewers more than a year ago.
         Despite the jump in ratings, the PGA still finished second in 2009 behind the Masters with a rating/share of 6.6/15 compared to the Masters’ 8.3/20. But it was the highest rated PGA since 2002, when Rich Beem hung on to beat Woods.
        Obviously, Woods drives ratings even if the Masters seems to stand in a class of its own. That the PGA edged the U.S. Open (4.7/11) and British Open (3.8/12) also is heady stuff for what is generally regarded as the fourth major in terms of importance.  
        It is a proven fact that when Tiger is in the mix, usually in the role of the winner, TV ratings skyrocket and everything else in the game goes up: rounds of golf, retail golf sales, golf lessons, golf vacations, etc. But the irony here is that Yang winning might actually do more to promote the game and encourage play throughout Asia and the world than had Tiger prevailed.      
          Golf writers like catchy words, and how many didn’t jump on the Ying-Yang metaphor at least once during the PGA?
          For the record, it’s “yin yang’’ in Chinese or Korean, even though most Westerners refer to it as ying-yang. In Chinese philosophy yin yang is used to describe how seemingly opposite forces are interconnected and yet independent of each other in the natural world, or complementary opposites within a greater whole.
         Gee, at least we perhaps unknowingly got the definition right, as Yang and Tiger “Yin’’ Woods certainly were “complementary opposites within a greater whole.’’
         It’s just an opinion, but did you get the feeling that Yang actually benefited from the cultural differences coming down the stretch, that it benefited him greatly that he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing at the moment? That had he been an American trying to knock off Woods that it might not have come as easily?
         Seriously, when was the last time you saw a player waving at the camera as he came down the homestretch while battling Tiger in a major? Not even Phil Mickelson would be doing that, like Yang was on the 16th hole.  
        One more thing about Yang: As we all know by now, he is the first Asian-born player to win a major. At the same time, Tiger’s mother was Thai, or Asian, so shouldn’t Woods already have gotten some of that credit?
       Reporting on Woods is not easy, chiefly because if you say anything the world’s No. 1 player doesn’t like he tends to “diss’’ you. CBS became aware of this a little over a year ago when Woods quit talking to Peter Kostis over something the Scottsdale broadcaster said about his swing. (A feud since resolved.)
       So CBS, being like every other TV media outlet, especially the “bow-down-to-Tiger’’ Golf Channel, assigned David Feherty to cover Woods. And say this about Feherty, he does a great job when it comes to sucking up to Tiger.
       Over and over as Yang and Woods battled it out Sunday, Feherty reminded us about Tiger’s penchant for making the big plays under pressure and how Yang was outmatched. The pinnacle of CBS openly rooting for Tiger came at the par-3 17th hole, where Woods’ tee shot airmailed the green into deep rough.
      “Absolutely all over the flag!’’ Feherty screamed of Woods’ errant shot, which had the line but was way off in terms of distance.
      Once he realized the shot wasn’t close, Feherty countered: “He’s not guessed right (on club selection) all week.’’
      And on one of the biggest shots of the day, neither did Feherty.
       Sure, it would have been quite a feat had Woods gone his entire career without ever blowing a 54-hole lead in the majors. But what were the odds considering how many times Tiger has put himself in that position?
       After 14 straight majors of looking invincible, Tiger finally proved to one and all that he is a mere mortal capable of being defeated. Just as incredible as the streak in the majors, however, were Woods’ 36 wins in a row where he had taken the 54-hole lead into the final round dating back to 1996, the year he came out on tour and gave it up to little-known Ed Fiori in the John Deere Classic.
       Unbelievably, the Associated Press story in the local paper did not mention one word about the demise of Padraig Harrington, who would have finished tied with Tiger had it not been for a disastrous 8 at the eighth hole, a simple par 3 that stretched a mere 167 yards.
       But those 8s happen when you dunk two balls in the water, as the defending champ did. And for the second straight week it looked like Harrington skulled a wedge out of deep greenside rough when it mattered most.
       Needless to say, Paddy will have a gut check next time he faces such a shot in the clutch, especially if it comes in a major.
      The jury still is out on whether Lucas Glover is a one-major wonder, but the U.S. Open champ did look better at times during the PGA, when he snuck within one shot of the lead on several occasions.
      In the end, the former winner of the 2003 Gila River Classic in Phoenix finished fifth (2 under). But that was quite an improvement from the British Open, where Glover missed the cut. And a long, long way from the start of the season when he failed to qualify for the Masters.
      So who is player of the year now that four relatively “average guys’’ split up the four majors and Woods didn’t win one?
      Yang? He’s the only guy with another PGA Tour win (Honda Classic) besides his major. Glover has the most top 10s (four) and money ($3.4 million) of the major winners.
Stew Cink has three other top 10s, and Masters winner Angel Cabrera has only one other top 10.
      Tiger, meanwhile, has five wins and twice as much money ($7.66 million) as Glover and still could make POY a moot point if he wins the FedEx Cup.
      Then again, don’t you have to win a major in order to really qualify for player of the year?
      None of the four major winners for 2009 came out of the top 20 in the world. Cabrera was No. 69 when he won the Masters, Glover was No. 71 when he was crowned U.S. Open champ, Stewart Cink came the closest at being No. 33 at the British Open, and PGA winner Yang came from the furthest back at No. 110.