Four victories, three major championships and 2,000 superlatives
ago, Tiger Woods won the Memorial, a promising warmup for the
U.S. Open three weeks later at Pebble Beach. After Woods's press
conference, I cornered tournament host Jack Nicklaus. His face
was flushed, and he looked tired. He had, after all, played in
the Memorial's final round, then thrown on his gray blazer and
shifted into host mode. I wanted to get Nicklaus's take on my
theory that Woods might win the next four majors, a seemingly
Woods had won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February
and knows the course well from his Stanford days, I told
Nicklaus, so he's likely to win the Open. If John Daly dominated
the Old Course at St. Andrews with his length, the long-driving
Woods would dominate it even more with his precision and
matchless short game. You designed the PGA venue, Valhalla Golf
Club, I reminded Nicklaus, so you know it favors a power player
who hits it high and soft--Tiger's forte, as it was yours.
Nicklaus graciously nodded. "Could be," he mused. "Valhalla is a
strong course, but I can't imagine any course that doesn't favor
Tiger. It doesn't matter what course you put him on, he'll play
Augusta National is the course everyone agrees is tailor-made for
Woods, I continued, and the Masters is the major you said he
would win more times than you and Arnold Palmer combined (10).
The 2001 Masters would make four majors in a row for Tiger, and
by my reckoning it's the surest bet of the bunch.
Four in a row. Nicklaus blinked. He let the notion sink in. No,
he wasn't buying it. "Well, Tiger didn't win at Augusta this
year," he pointed out. "He went in there right after that
six-in-a-row streak. He couldn't have been playing any better.
And he didn't win. Four in a row? I don't think that's fair to
him. He's playing awfully well, but you can't win everywhere.
Sometimes, you just don't make the putts."
Nicklaus was right--for players of his era. Golf in the 21st
century is a brave new world, however. Woods has changed the
rules. A bad bounce here or an unlucky break there doesn't affect
the outcome when you're 12 shots in front. Here's a new rule:
When Woods plays well, he removes the element of chance. He is
that much better than his peers. Woods is 3 for 3 in majors since
the Memorial, and you've got a better chance of finding someone
who's voting for Pat Robertson for president than someone who's
betting against Woods at Augusta next year.
Tiger Rules were in effect again last week at Firestone Country
Club in Akron. With all the subtlety of a cement truck running
over a grasshopper, Woods won the NEC Invitational, a 37-man
outing worth $5 million--or $4 million for the 36 guys who were
playing for second place. While he had struggled with his swing
at the PGA Championship the previous week and had needed a
playoff to beat Bob May, Woods had won his two other majors this
year in blowouts. His victory at Firestone would be another one.
(Oops. Blowouts and Firestone are touchy subjects in the Rubber
City these days.)
You don't need more proof that Woods has changed the rules, do
you? On Firestone's feared South Course he finished 21 under par,
11 strokes ahead of Justin Leonard and Phillip Price, who tied
for second. Woods might have won by more, but he completed the
third round, which he had started birdie-eagle-birdie, with 14
straight pars, which nearly qualifies as a slump for him, and he
played Sunday while suffering from flu symptoms that forced him
to make several rest room stops during the final round and one
more just after he finished.
Funny, but there was talk that the PGA drama had been so draining
for Woods that he might show up in Akron with a Bob-Maynia
hangover. "It will be amazing if he comes back here the same
way," Paul Azinger said of Woods before the NEC Invitational.
"Hey, I'm not suggesting he's going to have a letdown. I'm just
saying it's possible. I don't want to fire him up. Somebody fired
him up last week by saying he wasn't going to win the PGA."
On the eve of the tournament European tour player Thomas Bjorn
theorized that Woods couldn't continue to dominate over a long
period of time. "Tiger is by far the best player in the world and
does things nobody else can do," Bjorn said, "but he won't keep
going. He'll run into trouble and start losing tournaments.
Blowouts like Pebble Beach and the British Open, those are things
he's going to do from time to time. The PGA shows more the way
it's going to be. When the pressure was on, Tiger wasn't as
impressive as he was in the other majors. It's easy when you're
leading by seven or eight. In the PGA, he hit a lot of poor shots
coming down the stretch."
Bjorn should have used a lifeline for a second opinion. Five
holes into last Thursday's round, Woods already had an eagle and
two birdies. Those looking for a letdown began looking instead
for a 59. Woods made a run at that magic number in each of the
first two rounds. He was seven under through 12 holes on Thursday
but sprayed some drives and bogeyed the 16th and the 18th to
settle for a 64. He was eight under through 12 holes on Friday,
bogeyed the 14th and shot 61, tying Jose Maria Olazabal's
tournament record, set in 1990.
It took those startling runs to awaken the reserved Akron fans.
As Woods and his caddie, Steve Williams, walked down the 1st
fairway on Thursday, Woods remarked that the galleries were
unusually quiet, a far cry from the whooping, hollering
Kentuckians at Valhalla. "It was nice, it really was, without
anyone screaming and yelling," Woods would say. The last time he
enjoyed a round so quiet? The British Open. "I played a practice
round about 5:30 one morning, and no one was out there," Woods
said. "That was really nice."
The crowds livened up on Friday when Woods got hot again. Fans
chanted, "Fifty-nine! Fifty-nine!" on the back nine, but later,
when asked about the people cheering for a record, Woods said,
"What people?" He claimed he hadn't heard them and hadn't known
his score. "To be honest," he said, "I had no clue how many under
par I was. I knew I had a five- or six-shot lead. I just tried to
I have a tough time believing that--or many of the other things
Woods did at Firestone, such as eagling the 2nd hole three days
in a row. It's a short (497 yards) par-5, yes, but Woods hit a
six-iron to within a foot the first day, an eight-iron to 10
feet on the second day and a six-iron to 15 feet on the third.
He said he couldn't remember having done anything like that
His 64-61 start broke the Tour record for low opening 36 holes by
a shot, and he went into the weekend with a chance to surpass
Mike Souchak's record low score of 257, set in 1955. Woods shot
259, but he isn't interested in most statistics. "Just get the W
and go home," he said. He took a nine-shot lead into the final
round and played conservatively.
The big red numbers Woods put on the leader board didn't do much
for the sagging morale of the field. Colin Montgomerie noticed
when he finished his second round that Woods was 11 under through
24 holes. "Phenomenal," Montgomerie said. "I can only see that
gap widening, and good luck to him."
Asked after the second round what the winning score might be,
Woods said 30 under would be a safe number. He was joking,
although he was already halfway to that number. Another
questioner asked how long Woods's hot streak might last. Woods
tried not to seem offended. "I don't feel like it's a streak," he
said. "I'm just playing well."
Woods was bested only once all week. The winner? An insect. Woods
said a wasp--or some kind of stinging bug--was lying in his line on
the 15th green on Saturday and, rather than kill it, he picked it
up to move it. Woods, not likely to be confused with Marlin
Perkins, was stung on his left ring finger. He played the final
three holes with the stinger still in his fingertip. "It hurt
quite a bit," he said.
You watch Woods, you see something you've never seen. Two of his
shots at Firestone were magical, and both occurred on the 18th
hole. The first was on Saturday. An errant drive deposited his
ball in a bad lie in the left rough, 182 yards from the pin,
with a tree in the way. Woods grabbed a pitching wedge, opened
the club face to hit the shot high and, to make it hook, spun
around hard--so hard that his right leg rose off the ground in a
contorted follow-through, as if he had kicked a 50-yard field
goal. He reached the green and saved par. It wasn't merely a
shot no other player would have tried, let alone pulled off; it
was a shot no other player would have thought of. CBS announcer
David Feherty told Woods on the air the next day that it was the
best shot he had ever witnessed.
Woods's shot at 18 on Sunday was the best shot almost no one
witnessed. Thanks to a three-hour storm delay, Woods and Hal
Sutton finished in near darkness at 8:30 p.m. Woods was barely
visible from the green, 168 yards away, when he struck his
eight-iron approach shot. Long seconds passed before his ball
appeared out of the dark sky as suddenly as if Scotty had beamed
it down from the Starship Enterprise. It landed just past the
flagstick and spun back to within two feet. The crowd roared.
Some fans in the greenside bleachers stood and held burning
lighters, a rock concert tradition, as a thundering ovation
greeted the players. Asked later if that ranked among his most
memorable shots, Woods answered, "I don't know, I couldn't see
it. But I could hear it."
It has been a season of applause for Woods, who has won eight
times for the second straight year. Sometimes the clapping comes
from fellow players. Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, who beat
Woods in this year's World Match Play final and shares instructor
Butch Harmon with him, left a message on Woods's answering
machine after Woods won the U.S. Open. "The better you play, the
better it's making me look," Clarke said. "So keep on going."
That won't be a problem. There doesn't seem to be any stopping
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Playing out of a trap at least made things interesting during Woods's round of 61 on Friday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Am I blue? Price tied for second but was so far behind Woods that he might as well have been playing in another tournament.
COLOR PHOTO: PHIL LONG/AP Hip-hop golf Woods was light on his feet as he hit out of the rough on his way to saving par on 13 and finishing six under on Thursday.
The Tiger Gap
By every measure Woods is a giant step ahead of the other top
players in the game.
WOODS NUMBER 2
World Ranking 29.42 11.84 Ernie Els
Ryder Cup 1,305 430 Phil Mickelson
Presidents Cup 20,002,228 8,010,929 Mickelson
Sagarin Index 66.23 68.02 Els
Money List $7,692,821 $3,387,457 Mickelson
Bjorn said Woods couldn't dominate over a long time. He should've
used a lifeline for a second opinion.