A year ago, Woody Austin headed into the PGA Championship as one more journeyman of the tour. But man, what a journey he had that week in Tulsa.
The Tampa native and one-time bank teller found himself hot on the trail of Tiger Woods, earning the kind of roars triggered by the world's best golfer.
An indelible image from the final round: Austin sinking a clutch 40-foot putt for birdie on the 12th hole to stay close to Woods, then playfully putting a hand to an ear as the gallery showered him with an ovation.
"It was the first time in 12 years I had a chance on a Sunday in a major — so it was pretty cool," said Austin, 44, by phone.
Austin's eventual second-place finish to Woods — by a mere two strokes — was the breakthrough moment of his career. It was, he has said, sweeter than the three career victories he had notched since joining the tour in 1995.
The finish also landed Austin on the U.S. team in the 2007 Presidents Cup, at which he made a splash one day by firing eight birdies — and by losing his balance and falling face-first into a pond while attempting a shot. He later poked fun at himself by donning swimming goggles in his singles match.
But Austin has always been his harshest critic. And as he prepares for the 90th PGA Championship this week he gives himself mixed reviews, in spite of four top-10 finishes and amassing his second-highest earnings total of $1,618,527 (he earned $2,887,596 in 2007).
"I'm a little disappointed," he said. "It's not been a terrible year or anything, but I'm disappointed I haven't played as well as I was hoping. I haven't played horrendously, but I haven't played that great. I've had a couple of good tournaments. I let the Buick go, that still stings to give away a tournament like that."
Austin bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes of the final round at the Buick Open in June. He finished in a second-place tie with Bubba Watson, one stroke behind Kenny Perry. He was 20 under par and led by a stroke before his bogeys.
Austin, who now lives in Kansas, has gotten past his share of setbacks. In 1987, the Chamberlain High and Miami graduate tore tendons in his left knee during the Qualifying Tournament — having originally injured the knee at age 11 playing Little League — and sat out two seasons. He started out as the tour's rookie of the year in 1995, winning the Buick Open, but victories have been hard to come by since. His other two wins came at the 2004 Buick Championship and 2007 Stanford St. Jude Championship.
Following his painful loss at the 2008 Buick Open, Austin shot 12-under 272 to finish tied for ninth at the John Deere Classic. But he had trouble in the gusty winds at the British Open, tying for 39th with 16-over 296.
"I was pretty positive going into the British, and that weather kind of messed me up a little bit," he said. "Now, it's a matter of trying to get that swing back, that feel back, that I had before. Because I spent six days over there trying to hit the ball 3 feet off the ground."
His focus, coming off a tie for 52nd Sunday in the Bridgestone Invitational, has shifted quickly to the tournament that lifted him to another level. Austin had an opportunity to tie Woods last year at Southern Hills, but he missed a putt for birdie on the 15th hole en route to 3-under 67. Woods made his three for birdie and ultimately prevailed to finish 69 — 272, eight under for the tournament, his 14th major. Austin's payday: a whopping $756,000, second only to his $1.080-million in the St. Jude.
"I didn't score real well the first three days," he said of his 68-70-69. "And then on Sunday when it counted, it's probably the worst I've played of the four days, but I made putts, and I had a chance. And that's all you ask for at a major."
With Woods out for the season, rehabbing after knee surgery, does Austin think he can win it? "I always think I can win whether Tiger's playing or not," he said. "If you're not playing well, it doesn't matter."
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.