Blame it on March Madness, because if we aren't suffering from
hoops overload by now, my name isn't Gonzaga and Billy Packer
isn't wearing glass slippers. Still, that didn't look like Tiger
Woods winning the Bay Hill Invitational on Sunday as much as it
did Dean Smith and the North Carolina Tar Heels running the
four-corners offense. There was Tiger playing keep away. No fist
pumps, no come-from-behind rallies, no improbable escapes, no
Woods has won eight of the last 12 Tour events he has entered,
including one stretch of six in a row, but what made this one
different was the way he finished it: He turned as conservative
as a South Carolina Republican. Woods opened a large lead early
and then played safe, smart golf, laying up off the tee with
irons and fairway woods, and staking approach shots pin-high in
the middle of the green. No golfer is as dramatic as Woods, but
Sunday's finale was a reminder that he truly is a complete
Woods has the best long game, the best short game and, as he
showed again at Bay Hill, one of the best mental games on Tour. A
pro can have a successful career if he masters any one of those
facets of golf. Master all three, and you've got the Rocky Horror
Tiger Show. "He's already beating me every possible way, and he's
smarter than me, too," says 1996 Bay Hill champ Paul Goydos, who
opened with a pair of 69s yet trailed Woods by five shots. "If
Tiger were a nuclear physicist, he'd be a good one, if not the
best. He's got talent and brains, while I've got no talent and am
an idiot, so it's an uphill fight."
Last week Woods's course management was as impressive as his
putting, which was superb. "It's nice to putt on greens that
actually roll, after the West Coast, where they were like
playing Plinko," he said. Woods began the final round with a
two-shot lead over Davis Love III, and by the 4th hole he had
stretched it to five. On a long course that favors his power
game, Woods took 16 pars, two birdies and no chances on the way
to his 18th Tour victory, which ties him with Greg Norman on the
alltime list. Woods finished at 18-under 270, four strokes up on
Love and five ahead of Skip Kendall.
"He knows how to win, that's for certain," said Love, who ought
to know. He was trounced by Woods in last month's Andersen
Consulting Match Play, as well as in head-to-head confrontations
at last year's Grand Slam of Golf and Tour Championship. Love
was also Woods's first pro victim, in 1996, when Tiger beat him
in a playoff at the Las Vegas Invitational. "I saw Tiger's
caddie pull a two-iron and just hand it to him on one tee," said
Love. "They know what they're doing. The only way anybody can
beat him is if he does something silly...and he's not going to."
On Sunday, Woods pushed his drive into the thick rough at Bay
Hill's infamous closing hole, a 441-yard par-4 whose green is
guarded by a pond. On some other day he might've considered Tin
Cupping it toward the green, but with a five-shot lead, he
pitched back to the fairway--a smart,
ego-stashed-in-your-back-pocket play. When he tucked his third
shot close to the hole and made the putt for par, he put an
exclamation point on the bogey-free round.
"Remember how he used to grade himself?" Love said. "Tiger is
about an A-minus every week and an A-plus some weeks. He's
playing like everybody's A-game, week after week after week.
That's the difference." Other players perform like Woods when
they are on a hot streak. Woods isn't on a streak. This is
simply the level at which he plays. Get used to it. Love, who
ranks among the Tour's longest hitters, blistered a drive on
Sunday at the par-5 4th hole, but his ball stopped 50 yards
short of Woods's. Tiger then carried a seven-iron second shot
204 yards, uphill, onto the green. That sort of thing gets
inside the other players' heads. "How you perform when you play
against him is the question," Love said. "I've gone up against
him a couple of times when I felt I played well and got smoked.
I'm not the only one. You wonder, Can I beat him? He thrives on
that. He expects that he's going to play well, and that the
other guy is not going to play as well as he can because he'll
be trying too hard to keep up."
Woods clearly has Love's number. One day removed from a
nine-under 63 and paired with Woods for the final round, Love
bogeyed two of the first three holes, hitting his approach into
the hazard on the 3rd hole for the third time in four days. He
made four bogeys and failed to birdie any par-5s.
Before the round Love spoke honestly about Woods's
superiority--maybe too honestly. Remember, this is the No.
4-ranked player in the world. "You don't want to say this guy is
better than us," Love said, "but when Tiger is controlling his
irons and putting well, there's no reason he shouldn't shoot
four or five under a day. Butch Harmon, his instructor, kept
telling me before Tiger turned pro, 'Davis, when Tiger learns to
control his distances, nobody is going to beat him.' When Tiger
first came out, I said, 'This guy is not anywhere near as good
as he can be.' People didn't believe me."
Now we believe. The debate has already been elevated from Who's
the best player to Who's the best ever. Woods's numbers are as
stunning as Mark McGwire's. Woods has won 18 of 76 Tour events
(almost 24%) and 24 of 94 overall. Jack Nicklaus, the man by whom
Woods is measured, won 19% (67 of 358) of his starts from 1962 to
'80 and 35% (19 of 54) during his best three years, '71-73.
Parents, do you know where your golf records are? No milestone
seems safe. Woods has already made one run at Byron Nelson's
streak of 11 consecutive victories. Sam Snead's record of 81
career wins seems reachable--from this point on, Woods must win
five times a year for 12 years to reach 78. Anyone here think
five wins a year is much of a stretch? Didn't think so.
Nicklaus's 18 majors remains the Holy Grail, yet Woods, who
already has two, certainly seems capable of reeling off four or
five in a row. "You can make a case for him winning all four
majors in one year, so how about if he just averages one a year?"
Love said. "He'd have to load up on Masters and British Opens,
but if he got six of each." Love laughed. "The funny thing is
that I'm not saying, No, there's no way he can do that."
Billy Andrade, paired with Woods for the first two rounds last
week, watched him go 11 under par. "His nickname should be Laser
Woods," Andrade said. "His shots never leave the flags. He steps
up, laser. Next shot, laser. I never played with Hogan, Nicklaus,
Palmer or Snead in their primes, but it is unbelievable to see
the shots Tiger plays. He hit as many great shots as Olin Browne
and I hit good ones."
Two-time Bay Hill champ Loren Roberts, who tied for fourth at 11
under, is almost grateful to be growing old. "The face of golf
is changing," Roberts said on Sunday, after his closing 67.
"These guys are reaching all the par-5s in two, hitting
three-woods in there that stop like my wedge shots. I'm glad I'm
almost 45 and not 25 and hitting it this short. Tiger hit
eight-iron to the [530-yard, par-5] 4th hole one day and
four-iron to the [570-yard, par-5] 12th yesterday. What was he,
14 under on the par-5s? I can't beat that."
As March Madness slowly turns into Masters fever, an entire Tour
feels the same way.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG TRAPPED Love's dilemma: He has been good enough to challenge Woods more than other pros, but not good enough to beat him.
"Remember how [Woods] used to grade himself?" Love said. "He's
playing like everybody's A-game, week after week after week."