When Tiger Woods visited Thailand a year ago, he made headlines
around the world. A huge crowd greeted him at the airport, and
his arrival was carried live on four of the nation's five
television stations. He was feted by business leaders, decorated
by the prime minister and toasted at various banquets and
parties. He also easily won the Asian Honda Classic at the Thai
Country Club near Bangkok, where he was followed by galleries
estimated at 5,000. The entire nation was caught up in Tiger
Last week Woods was back in Thailand for the Johnnie Walker
Classic, and to paraphrase the old song, what a difference a
year has made, with one notable exception. During the last 12
months, the country experienced a series of economic double
bogeys that triggered the Asian financial crisis, required $17
billion in bailouts from the International Monetary Fund and
continues to have Wall Street biting its nails. Nearly two
million Thais are unemployed. The night before Woods played a
pretournament exhibition, police battled 3,000 angry auto
workers who tried to firebomb their factory near Bangkok because
their salaries were slashed and bonuses eliminated. With
Thailand now a tinderbox, this year's Tiger Fever was 98.6.
As Woods himself pointed out, the economy was only one reason
his visit received less attention. Another was that the Johnnie
Walker Classic, which served as the European tour's season
opener, was held not in Bangkok, Thailand's capital of six
million, but in Phuket, on an island 428 miles to the south.
Woods took some heat from the press. One newspaper lamented that
he hadn't put in an appearance in Bangkok, another pointed out
that he wasn't as accessible on this trip. The British press
seemed intent on making his life miserable, regarding him as an
interloper on the European tour. They peppered him with
questions regarding his poor performance in the Ryder Cup. Woods
frostily assured the Brits it was not his biggest disappointment
of the year.
Woods and Ernie Els stayed at a $1,200-a-night hotel in Phuket,
rarely venturing out except to go to the course. "He's too
tired," explained Woods's mother, Kutilda, who trailed her son
around the course with father Earl, the two in separate carts.
Both parents, however, did make a joint appearance at a Johnnie
Walker charity party, where it's a tradition that the top
golfers take turns playing bartender. Jose Maria Olazabal got
into the spirit of things, standing in for an hour and doing his
best Tom Cruise imitation, mixing drinks behind his back. Woods
limited his stint to 10 minutes, and his demeanor clearly said,
"Lemme outta here."
This may be the Year of the Tiger in Asia, but when the
tournament began, it definitely didn't seem to be the Week of
the Tiger. He shot an even-par 72 in the first round and found
himself five strokes behind Els and several others, including
Germany's Alexander Cejka, who said he was unimpressed by Woods.
"I've won tournaments and beaten a lot of good golfers already,"
Cejka said. "I'm not afraid of Tiger Woods."
And with good reason, it seemed. Woods's second-round 71 left
him 11 strokes behind Els, the leader, and eight back of Cejka.
When Kathy Shearer, the press officer for the tournament, tried
to coax Woods into the media center after Friday's round, he
responded rudely with two words, and they weren't no thanks.
When Shearer threatened to relay Tiger's exact words to the
press, he relented. Asked at that session whom he would bet on
to win the tournament, he quickly replied, "Me." Told of Woods's
pronouncement, Els shook his head in wonder. "What's he on?" he
Woods might have wanted to hedge his bet when he reached the
17th tee the next day. He had missed an eagle putt at 15, then
bogeyed 16. Waiting on the next tee, he stood with his back to
the crowd, cap doffed, staring vacantly into the distance.
Minutes later he bogeyed 17, en route to another 71. Els
ballooned to a 74, which placed Woods only eight strokes back,
but in between him and Els were 16 other players, including Nick
Faldo, whose 69 had put him in second, a stroke behind Els. "I
once came from nine strokes back to win," said Woods. "Of
course, that was in junior golf."
Sometimes it takes a lot of help to win a tournament, and
although Woods did his part on Sunday by shooting a 65, he was
certain it wouldn't be good enough. Yet during his two-hour wait
to see where his score would leave him, the leaders began to
crumble. Australia's Peter O'Malley, in contention after nine,
had two bogeys and a double on the last five holes. Faldo shot
75. Cejka shot 72. But there still remained Els, the stoic South
African and two-time U.S. Open champion, a stroke ahead with
three to play.
Els also began to unravel. He bogeyed 16, then 17 and only by
sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole did he force a
playoff. Meanwhile, Woods had rushed to the practice tee, but he
found that there were no balls waiting for him there. All he
could do was take a few furious practice swings.
The playoff began at 18. Both parred, Woods getting up and down
from just over the green, Els missing a 15-foot birdie putt. So
it was back to the 18th tee to try again. This time it was Els
who was over, Woods about 15 feet away. Els chipped close, but
it was academic. Woods's curling putt dropped for the birdie and
the improbable win.
The Johnnie Walker Classic is hardly the U.S. Open or any of the
other majors, but Woods's coming from eight strokes back to win
any tournament is bound to get the attention of his peers, most
especially the one who got nailed, Els. Next time Woods says he
can still win, no one will ask, "What's he on?"
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LONGSTREATH/AP After being belittled for thinking big, Woods made up eight strokes on the final day. [Tiger Woods holding trophy in front of elephant]