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Never A Doubt Slump? What slump? Tiger Woods wondered after his win in Atlanta

Ten months ago he was being treated like the fifth Beatle. By the
time last week's BellSouth Classic rolled around, Tiger Woods
had been squeezed out of the spotlight by his four fab rivals.
That's what happens when you're stuck in a winless streak that
stretches back to last July's Western Open while golf's other
roaring twentysomethings are busy taking over the sport.

Since Woods's last W, Justin Leonard had won the British Open
and shot to No. 2 on this season's money list, thanks to a
victory at the Players Championship. Phil Mickelson had also
taken a pair of tournaments, including the prestigious Mercedes
Championships to kick off 1998. In one of the more stunning
developments of the year, at the Bay Hill Invitational in March,
reigning U.S. Open champ Ernie Els gave Woods the back of the
hairbrush, spanking him by 12 strokes while the two were paired
over the final 36 holes. Still, none of these players had dulled
Woods's star quite like David Duval, who could boast five
victories in 13 starts, including the Houston Open two weeks
ago. That win propelled Duval to the top of the money list and
led some observers to proclaim him America's best player.

At 22 Woods already obsesses about his place in history, and
being the fifth wheel is not what he has in mind. That's why his
performance at the BellSouth was so meaningful. Woods was
brilliant for three days, shooting 69-67-63 to take a three-shot
lead into Sunday. Then, without his best fastball, he tussled
with the TPC at Sugarloaf for every stroke. In the end he beat
Jay Don Blake by a shot and earned a satisfying victory over his
growing number of detractors.

When it was over, Woods claimed no excitement, just relief.
"Phew, finally," he said. "I can relax now."

He can also revel in having made a statement as to who is the
Man, past, present and future. Right, Tiger? "No. I try to make
a so-called statement every week I play," he said. "I try to
win. Someone else playing well isn't going to change my way of

Woods had spouted these kinds of platitudes throughout his
victory drought, though no one really believed him. Perhaps this
time he was trying to downplay his budding rivalry with Duval,
but he need not have bothered because Duval was backpedaling
before the tournament even began. ("No, I don't feel like I've
been grouped or given a rival," Duval said last Wednesday. "I
don't know if I really want one.") In truth Woods's calculated
air of nonchalance is his way of pretending his slump wasn't
really a slump. There is considerable evidence to support his
position. In the 16 tournaments between the Western and the
BellSouth he had won more than $1 million, and even before his
stellar play last week he was leading the Tour in scoring
average. Woods's play over the past 10 months was disappointing
only compared with the preceding 10 months, during which he had
won six of his first 21 tournaments as a pro, an outrageous pace
that would have had him breaking Sam Snead's record of 81
victories sometime around his 34th birthday.

To hear Woods tell it, the difference between a victory and just
another top 10 finish is little more than a couple of fortuitous
bounces of the ball. "The only reason I won today," Woods said,
"is that I got some lucky breaks. I haven't been able to get
them all year." This was a nod not only to a couple of loose
iron shots that narrowly avoided water hazards but also to the
inability of anyone else on the leader board to mount a credible
charge while Woods labored to his even-par 72. He even got lucky
with the weather. The rain that fell throughout the week around
Atlanta made a long course (7,259 yards) play even longer, and
Woods took full advantage. On many holes he eschewed his driver
in favor of a three-wood, which he hits higher and carries
farther, thus enabling him to fly much of the muck that bogged
down other players.

Woods was at his overpowering best on Saturday, when he looked
to have ended the tournament with his 63, which matched his low
round as a pro and established a course record. His day was
jump-started on the 541-yard 4th hole by a 253-yard two-iron to
within 15 feet. Woods made the putt for eagle, and three birdies
in a row followed, the second of which--a near gimme on another
par-5--gave Woods his first outright lead. He dropped the hammer
on the back nine with four more birdies, but afterward he was
bragging about a trio of up-and-downs midway through the round.
"I made a lot of key par putts," Woods said, "the kind that keep
the momentum of a round going. Those are the putts I haven't
been making."

During his three-week vacation after the Masters, Woods altered
his posture on the greens, moving his eyes directly over the
ball, which, he says, allows him to get a better look at the
line of his putts. While the adjustment had pumped up his
confidence, Woods nonetheless felt jitters heading into the
final round. "I'm always nervous," he said. "The day I'm not is
the day I quit. That means I don't care." Still, he had to be
comforted by the competition, or lack thereof.

Only five players were within seven shots of the lead, and let's
just say that none of them put the fear of Els into Woods.
Blake, Stewart Cink, Steve Flesch, Glen Hnatuik and Jeff
Gallagher had combined for a grand total of two Tour victories
in 51 lackluster years of pro golf. At three shots back, Blake
was Woods's closest pursuer, and on Saturday night the 12-year
journeyman sounded like a starstruck duffer who had drawn Woods
in a Wednesday pro-am. "I'm excited to tee it up with him,"
Blake said, noting that he had never played with Woods, not even
in a practice round. "I've heard all the stories--about the
crowd, about how far he hits it and the kind of shots he pulls
off. It's impressive, the stuff that goes on, and I'm looking
forward to seeing it for myself."

Blake is a likable 39-year-old from St. George, Utah, who is at
least as well known for representing Playboy a number of years
ago as he is for his lone victory, in 1991 at San Diego. He
earned some respect on Sunday with a stout 70 that featured no
bogeys and what seemed like a million near misses on the greens.
But he never generated any real momentum, particularly on the
front side.

While Woods was making three bogeys on his way to a 38, Blake
could do no better than nine straight pars. Woods still held a
one-shot lead when he stepped to the tee of the watery par-3
11th. Playing 193 yards straight downwind, Woods hooked an
eight-iron that he was sure was headed not only for the water
but also for the land of double bogeys. Instead, his ball flew
the green and plugged atop a small cliff overlooking the green,
in waist-high heather. Woods took advantage of the gift by
flopping miraculously to six feet and nailing the par putt.
"That was the turning point of the whole tournament," he said.
Asked if that was one of his boss's best up-and-downs, Woods's
caddie, Fluff Cowan, said, "That was one of the best ever, by
anybody. It was an all-timer." Two holes later Woods birdied to
go ahead by two, and five straight pars got him in the barn,
though Blake missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that
would have forced a playoff. "I was hoping to scare Tiger and
make him nervous. It didn't seem to happen," Blake said. "He's
everything they say, and more."

That Woods brought out the best in Blake is no surprise. "That's
one of the greatest pluses Tiger has given to the game," says
Duval, who shot a final-round 65 to finish 14th. "He has made
the quality of the game better because the players have to be
better to beat him."

The fear of being pushed around by Woods compelled Leonard to
bulk up and Duval to slim down, and Woods's physique is just one
standard against which other players are measured. Sunday's
victory made him the second-youngest player in Tour history to
have won seven tournaments (behind Horton Smith in 1929) and
returned him to the top spot in the World Ranking. The $324,000
winner's check pushed his earnings over the $1 million mark for
1998, making him No. 3 on the Tour's money list.

There's no question that Woods, throughout his dry spell,
remained No. 1 with the fans. Beginning last Thursday his
galleries dwarfed Duval's. "Well, Tiger is Tiger," says Duval.
"There is a big difference."

Woods even inspires otherworldly devotion. Not far from
Sugarloaf was a church that, even before the tournament began,
advertised a Sunday sermon on the subject WHAT JESUS WOULD SAY
TO TIGER WOODS. It's an interesting thought, but there's a
larger point to extract. No one is building sermons around Duval
or the other young stars just yet, and last week Woods reminded
us why.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND BACK IN THE PICTURE Woods, who hadn't won since last summer, regained the No. 1 ranking last week and silenced his critics. [Tiger Woods after swinging golf club]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND SEEING IS BELIEVING A 12-year veteran, Blake looked forward to seeing Woods's act for the first time. [Jay Don Blake after swinging golf club in tournament]


A wagering man looking for a good bet to win this week's GTE
Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Texas, would be wise to put his
money on one of the players whose 1998 numbers are listed below.
Woods, the defending champion, will be teeing it up along with
all four of the Tour's other under-30 stars for only the fourth
time this season. On the other occasions, Phil Mickelson won the
Mercedes, Justin Leonard took the Players, and David Duval
should have won the Masters. "They're going to start a Junior
tour for all the guys under 30," says Paul Azinger. "That way
the rest of us have a chance."

Tiger Woods 1 9 1 6 $1,003,586 69.58
Ernie Els 2 6 1 3 $596,138 69.99
Justin Leonard 6 11 1 3 $1,040,800 70.90
David Duval 7 11 2 5 $1,272,305 69.79
Phil Mickelson 9 12 1 4 $705,050 70.20