Just as he has at every level of golf--but not quite in the way
that was expected--Tiger Woods has left the pack far behind.
While all eyes were riveted on the impossible arcs of his
drives, flop shots and endorsement deals, Woods was forging a
less flamboyant but more reliable game with study and sweat.
Which is precisely why his accomplishments in 1999 are more
impressive than his lightning-bolt 12-stroke victory at Augusta
in 1997. It turns out that Woods has the instincts of an old
soul, which told him that while lightning bolts are ephemeral,
his assiduously wrought new game would stand the test of time.
The latest manifestation of what golf's 23-year-old virtuoso
likes to call "the fruits of my labor" was Sunday's American
Express Championship at Valderrama Golf Club on the southern
coast of Spain, where Woods overcame a near Van de Veldeian
disaster to defeat Miguel Angel Jimenez on the first hole of
sudden death. With the victory Woods put an exclamation point on
one of the greatest years ever in the history of golf.
Exhibiting what he called the best ball control of his career on
a tight, windswept course that largely negated his length off the
tee, Woods exploded with four birdies and an eagle from the 9th
through the 14th holes of the final round to take a three-stroke
lead. But his short approach to the par-5 17th--a shot he
described as a perfectly struck nine-iron with reduced backspin
into a strong wind--landed 20 feet past the pin, then began a slow
roll toward the front of the green and ended up in the water.
Woods took a triple-bogey 8 that dropped him a stroke behind
However Woods, as champions often do, gathered himself to finish
with a solid par and caught a break when Jimenez bogeyed the
18th. Then Woods made the most of his chance, stepping to the tee
of the first playoff hole and launching a 344-yard three-wood
down the fairway. The sight of that drive seemed to cause the
Spaniard known as the Mechanic to throw a rod; his drive dived
left under some cork trees. After Jimenez failed to save par with
a chip from the fringe, Woods closed him out with a 12-foot
birdie putt. "I'm sure he is as good as anyone has ever been,"
said Bernhard Langer, a man allergic to hype, who played with
Woods in the second round.
Without even taking into account the $1 million first prize that
raised Woods's official season earnings to $6,616,885 (some
$900,000 more than Jack Nicklaus has earned in his PGA Tour
career), the victory at Valderrama put him in some very good
company. Woods became only the eleventh PGA Tour player to win
eight tournaments in a season, and the first since Johnny Miller
did so in 1974. It was also his fourth victory in as many starts,
making him the first to accomplish that feat since Ben Hogan in
Considering that Woods also won one major (the PGA Championship)
and a European Tour event in Germany, was in contention at both
the U.S. and British Opens, finished in the top 10 in 16 of his
21 events overall and never missed a cut, there can be no dispute
he put together a run for the ages. While it may not approach the
holy trinity of golf seasons--Byron Nelson's 18 victories
(including 11 straight) in 1945, Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in '30
and Ben Hogan's Masters, U.S. and British Open victories in
'53--it's arguably the best in the past 40 years, better than
Arnold Palmer's eight victories (including the Masters and the
U.S. Open) in '60, Nicklaus's seven (including the Masters and
the U.S. Open) in '72 and Johnny Miller's eight (no majors) in
Nelson, reached at home outside Fort Worth on Sunday, believes
that Woods's is the best eight-victory season ever--including the
ones by Sam Snead and himself--because, he says, "the competition
is so much keener now." Nicklaus ranks Woods's year as superior
to any of his own because "today's players are better, there are
more of them, and he has beaten the best of the best time after
Miller sounds a note of mild dissent by pointing out that the
players he believes have the talent to challenge Woods--Ernie Els,
Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson--had just one PGA Tour victory
among them in '99, while David Duval, who was the top-ranked
player earlier in the year, was strangely ineffective in the
second half and didn't play at Valderrama. On the other hand
Miller concedes that their struggles and Woods's success may not
be unrelated. "Among the young bucks Woods has the presence that
makes the others sense that he is the most dominant buck," Miller
says. "Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson all had that quality, and it's
absolutely vital. It's a feeling that's hard to define, but the
other players know deep down when somebody else is better."
Six months ago Duval appeared to be the dominant buck, but while
he was completing a run of 11 wins in 34 events with his victory
in the BellSouth Classic in April, Woods was patiently waiting
for the glue to harden on the swing changes he had begun working
on soon after winning the Masters two years earlier. Woods
watched videotape of his win at Augusta and saw that his swing
was reliant on timing more than on sound biomechanics. He decided
that to hit a variety of shots under pressure, he would need a
swing that minimized the instinctive adjustments of his wrists
and hands in the downswing.
That Woods asked coach Butch Harmon to help him change his swing
only weeks after the most commanding performance in a major
championship this century--and knowing that it would take a year
or more for his rebuilt swing to become natural--speaks volumes
for his long-term commitment to peak performance. When Woods shot
61 in the first round of the Byron Nelson Classic in May, he knew
he had turned the corner. After that event, in which he tied for
seventh, he embarked on his current run of eight victories in 11
Through his evolution as a pro Woods has shown that for all his
charisma and flair for the dramatic, he is about, above all else,
discipline and methodical improvement. Now a solid 6'2", 180
pounds, Woods's arms and shoulders are visibly more muscular as a
result of a weight training program. To build stamina Woods goes
on long runs regularly; at Valderrama he ran at least three miles
each day with his caddie, Steve Williams, and agent, Mark
Steinberg. He also underwent Lasik eye surgery last month, which
improved his vision to 20-15, and he hasn't lost a tournament
"I was there the first time Tiger worked with my dad in August
1993," said Butch Harmon's son, Claude III, "and he has been a
better player each time I've seen him, without fail, whether it
was after two days or two months. He's an incredible worker and a
more incredible learner. The biggest improvement he's ever made
might be the one from May to now."
That does not bode well for everyone chasing Woods. "We've got to
keep stepping it up a notch" says Love. "But while we've been
saying that, he's stepped it up another notch."
The big question is, How much better can Woods get? In addition
to his dream of winning all four majors in one year, Woods's
overriding--although unstated--goal is to surpass Nicklaus's record
of 20 major championships. Counting his three U.S. Amateur
titles, Woods now has five majors, the same number Nicklaus had
at age 23. Says Nicklaus, "Not only has he got a lot of what I
had, he may have a lot more of it. Time will tell." Adds Nelson,
"I wouldn't say he couldn't do it. He's got that burning desire,
the diligence never to let up. In fact, I see his desire
Even Miller, who once predicted that Woods would win 50
tournaments and 10 majors, is ready to revise his projection.
"It's kind of been heresy to think about catching Jack, but Tiger
has been groomed for it. If you figure he's got 15 good years
left, and he wins one major a year, he's there."
Asked at Valderrama how much more improvement he could make,
Woods answered, "A lot." In all areas? "Always. I don't know how
much better I can get--I don't know," he said. "But I can tell you
one thing: I will continue to work very hard."
That's why, on the singular path he has chosen for himself, Woods
will continue to run far ahead of the pack.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN A reign in Spain An eagle on the 11th hole on Sunday got Woods--and the gallery--pumped.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Butch attitude Despite his early success on the Tour, Woods broke down his swing and then rebuilt it under the tutelage of Harmon.
"Today's players are better," Nicklaus says, "and he has beaten
the best of the best time after time."