Three years ago Tiger Woods burst onto the scene with anarchy in
his heart and Jack Nicklaus on his mind. Almost overnight he
changed the face of professional golf. Back then Woods played
with the volume turned way up. He strutted around tournament
sites to a sound track of squealing teenyboppers, breathless
reporters, grumbling colleagues and, always, the
click-click-click of a thousand cameras. His weekly press
conferences were as entertaining as anything he did on the
course. They were rowdy, standing-room-only affairs at which he
laid odds on his winning the Grand Slam, played coy about rumors
linking him to supermodels and generally acted like the biggest
star in the sports universe, which he was. Woods took the hype,
pressure, criticism and expectations and refined them all into
his own sort of rocket fuel, which he used to power his ascension.
As we all know, Woods plummeted back to earth, dragged down,
like so many before him, by the demands of being the No. 1
player in the world, a spot he has ceded to David Duval.
Recently Woods fell to third in the World Ranking behind Davis
Love III, the poster boy for complacent consistency. Sad to say,
but Woods was beginning to look like just another good golfer,
content to cash his inflated checks and brag about how often he
finishes in the top 5. Even more stunning was how far Woods's Q
rating had fallen. Duval's icy proficiency was now the game's
most compelling show, and even Sergio Garcia, with his teenaged
exuberance and Old World charm, was generating more buzz.
Last week, at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Heidelberg, Germany,
Woods traveled back to the future, dominating a world-class field
and setting off the kind of Tigermania that has been dormant for
nearly two years. This was Woods's first trip to Germany and his
first appearance at a European tour event on the Continent, and
he was greeted by a level of fanaticism usually reserved for a
new George Lucas movie. Woods shot a 15-under-par 273 at the St.
Leon Rot Golf Club, three strokes clear of Retief Goosen of South
Africa, but his golf was only a sidelight. The victory was a
testament to Woods's still potent star power, particularly when
the PGA Tour's Colonial Invitational got stuck with a leader
board full of Olin Brownes.
Woods blew into Germany in high style, having leased the Orlando
Magic's team plane, a 737 disguised as an oversized living room
with plenty of space for Woods and the 13 members of his
entourage, including some guy named O'Meara. It was not a
craving for bratwurst that drew Woods to Germany. Dietmar Hopp,
the billionaire founder of SAP, the global software company,
made an appearance-fee offer that six of the top 10 players in
the World Ranking (plus Garcia) couldn't refuse. Woods was
widely reported to have received by far the fattest fee--$1
Hopp's investment began paying dividends on Wednesday afternoon,
two days before the start of the tournament, when Woods held a
press conference for some 100 unruly reporters. "I haven't seen
this for some time," Woods said to the assembled mob, sounding
rather pleased. "In the States the press is getting accustomed
to me." The first question put to Woods was what one English
reporter termed "a curveball, fastball and slider all rolled
into one." Woods was asked what his impressions of Germany had
been before arriving in Heidelberg. This may have been the SAP
Open, but Woods is no sap. "Not exactly the most positive
things," Woods said, "from the history I got at school." He then
deftly segued into effusive praise for Bernhard Langer and some
of Germany's younger players. Woods's candor was noteworthy
enough to get his mug splashed across newspapers throughout
Europe, and he got high marks for the high-wire act. Woods also
endeared himself to the European press corps by heaping praise
on Garcia. "I get asked a lot about him," Woods said, "but I
don't mind because he's such a nice kid."
It's a little premature for Woods to be talking like a doddering
elder statesman, as he showed in the opening round last Friday,
with a 69 in tough conditions that left him three shots behind
Ernie Els. On Saturday his swing got a little loose, but a hot
putter carried him to a 68 and the midway lead, which thrilled
the crowds that by week's end would exceed 100,000. In Sunday's
third round, Woods took control of the tournament with another
68. During the final round on Monday his lead never dipped below
those three strokes.
After his victory Woods talked a lot about validation. Of his
exorbitant appearance fee, he said, "I feel the tournament got
what it wanted." He also expressed satisfaction with his steady
performance. Over the past two years he has paid much lip
service to the improvement in his all-around game. Woods noted
his victory in February at San Diego and his career-best 61 at
the Byron Nelson Classic two weeks ago and said he is finally
getting results. "I went through a period when I was changing my
game, and I wasn't as proficient at winning," he said. "Now I
feel everything has really gelled."
Having enjoyed this taste of his former life, Woods may be ready
for another sustained run as golf's leading man. There is a
historical precedent for Woods's emerging from an overseas
adventure refreshed and refocused. One of his defining
performances came at the Asian Honda Classic, in Bangkok, in
February 1997. Woods was playing in Thailand to honor his
mother's homeland--and to pick up an appearance fee of nearly
$500,000--and his arrival in the middle of the night was carried
live on four of Bangkok's five TV stations. Despite a bad case
of the flu, Woods exceeded even the wildest expectations,
driving the 389-yard 10th hole during the third round and
finishing at 20 under par, and 10 strokes clear of his closest
pursuer. Two months later he made history at the Masters, and a
global phenomenon was born.
"One thing I've learned from sports is that you never arrive,"
Woods said on Monday. "You can always get better. I'll never
arrive, but it's a fun journey."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL SEVERN/ALLSPORT NEW TIGER BEAT Fan interest in Woods's first tournament on the Continent pushed daily attendance at the event to 100,000.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL SEVERN/ALLSPORT TEEN ESPANA Garcia was three shots back of Woods after two rounds, but a 71-74 finish dropped him from fifth to 20th.
"I went through a period when I was changing my game," Woods
said. "Now I feel everything has really gelled."