At last week's season-ending American Express Championship at
Valderrama Golf Club in Sotogrande, Spain, fans received a free
hat bearing the tournament sponsor's logo. That was only
appropriate because everybody seemed to have money on the brain.
Tiger Woods rocked the boat when a published report had him
criticizing some of the Tour's business practices and taking
shots at commissioner Tim Finchem. Meanwhile, Woods's European
tour counterparts made headlines by demanding access to their
tour's financial records. Even the on-course action was couched
in the most capitalistic terms: Woods needed a victory to become
the game's first $10 million man, while the race for the Euro
tour's Order of Merit--a genteel term for its money list--went down
to the wire, with fans and players glued to their calculators.
In the end Mike Weir, the plucky Canadian who pulled off a
rousing come-from-behind victory, seemed less amazed by the
magnitude of his second career win than by the size of its
remuneration--one million simoleons, U.S. "It's unbelievable,"
Weir said following his two-stroke victory over Lee Westwood.
"Three years ago I was playing for purses that totaled $100,000,
and that was Canadian dollars. Winning a million dollars is
beyond what I ever dreamed I would do in this game."
It's nice that Weir, a 30-year-old lefty, has maintained some
perspective because the U.S.'s top players, with the exception of
Woods, apparently have misplaced theirs. Five Yanks in the top 10
on the World Ranking decided to stay home and sleep in--Phil
Mickelson (third), David Duval (fourth), Davis Love III
(seventh), Hal Sutton (eighth) and Tom Lehman (10th). "The
Americans are like a bag of prawns on a hot day," said Stuart
Appleby. "They just don't travel." Added Darren Clarke, "The
thing is, a million dollars isn't a huge amount of money to them.
It's a huge amount of money to everybody else."
The common alibi offered by the no-shows was that there was,
quote, nothing left to play for, unquote. Except, that is, World
Ranking points, Ryder Cup points, the chance to improve one's
position on the money list (Weir shot from 27th to sixth) and,
not least, professional pride. Woods, a multinational corporation
unto himself, did not hesitate to take a slap at his fat and
happy colleagues. "I've always figured to be the world's best,
you have to play around the world," said the world's best. "You
have to win in various countries and conditions."
Those conditions included a hysterical media climate after
Tiger's saber rattling was made public two days before the
tournament. No dummy, Woods scheduled his pretournament press
conference for Tuesday morning at 9:30, hours before his
criticisms surfaced on the AP wire. After that, no amount of
baiting could get him to address the issues in any detail. In
this vacuum Europe's overheated headline writers were left to
their imagination. ANGRY TIGER THREATENS TO QUIT THE STATES
screamed The Mirror. SHOW ME THE MONEY! was The Sun's delicate
Enter Finchem, who long ago had planned a press conference about
junior golf for the morning of the second round. Understand,
reporters attend these things only at gunpoint, but a giddy band
of muckrakers sat through the backslapping and proselytizing to
have a go at Finchem. When the floor was opened up for questions,
the first two were about Woods, and Finchem took on the
expression of a man who had eaten some bad paella. "I'm not going
to comment on that at this press conference," he said, nor did he
comment on it after this press conference. Behind the scenes
Finchem and Woods agreed to sit down and hash things out in
December. James Baker and Warren Christopher are expected to fly
in as observers.
The Euros added to the acrimonious air when it was made public,
also on Tuesday, that 50 players had signed a letter demanding an
independent audit of their tour's financial records. Said Jose
Maria Olazabal, "We want to know where the money is going. We
don't have any information." European tour executive director Ken
Schofield took this as a personal attack, saying, "Jose Maria
wants to know how much I earn? Then I will tell him. In 1999 I
earned 213,000[pounds] and in 1998.... "
The on-course action was a welcome relief to all the posturing.
In benign conditions on Thursday, Nick Price made 11 birdies
during a 63, one shy of the course record. Woods, bidding to join
Byron Nelson (1945), Ben Hogan ('46 and '48) and Sam Snead ('50)
as the only players to win 10 or more tournaments in a season,
got off to a shaky start when he rinsed a six-iron on the par-5
17th hole to make bogey, part of a one-under 71. (This year the
7th hole at Valderrama grew into a par-5, raising the par to 72.)
The 536-yard 17th--with its do-or-die pond fronting the green--has
given Woods fits ever since the '97 Ryder Cup, when he putted a
ball off the green and into the water to lose a four-ball match
to Westwood and Nick Faldo. During the final round of last year's
AmEx, while playing what he recently called one of the finest
rounds of his career, Woods hit a perfect approach well beyond
the pin. That his ball rolled back into the hazard highlighted
the absurdity of the impossibly steep green.
A stiff breeze sent scores soaring on Friday, and Woods crept
into contention by playing the first 16 holes in three under.
Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg, was holding court in the press
room when the telecast cut to his client in the middle of the
17th fairway. Steinberg sensed the inevitability of the
situation. "Let's see what club Tiger uses to hit it into the
water today," said Steinberg, moments before Woods's nine-iron
came up short of the green and rolled back into the drink. Woods
fired his club to the ground and stalked down the fairway, but he
saved par with a brilliant up and down, capping a 69. (Weir was
not so lucky: He drowned two balls in the pond and made an 8,
part of a 75 that left him eight strokes back of midway leader
The most anticipated drama of the third round, then, was Woods's
playing of the 17th. This was no longer merely the world's best
golfer trying to navigate an ill-designed par-5. This was
Hercules versus the lion. After smashing a drive, Woods stepped
on an eight-iron from 180 yards, and it spun safely to a stop on
the back of the green. In a cute gesture he doffed his cap and
took a bow, and the ensuing birdie highlighted another 69 that
put him only two back of leader Hidemichi Tanaka of Japan and one
in arrears of Weir, who, improbably, had hit all 18 greens on
this claustrophobic course and shot a 65.
The other riveting tournament within a tournament was the Order
of Merit scrum. Six golfers came to Valderrama with a
mathematical chance at taking the top spot, but all the drama
centered on Europe's three keynote players--Clarke, Westwood and
Colin Montgomerie, who was trying to keep alive one of the most
remarkable streaks in golf, his run of seven straight money
titles. At the Volvo Masters the week before, Clarke had finished
second to earn $222,220, while Westwood tied for third,
collecting $112,600 and allowing Clarke to take over the top spot
by $62,519 (with a season's total of $1,536,013). Montgomerie
headed to Valderrama a distant sixth, with $976,812. He needed a
victory even to have a prayer at staying on his throne.
On Thursday all three players seemed rattled by what was at
stake. Westwood called his opening 72 "an absolute pile of
rubbish"--and he played the best of the bunch. Clarke had only one
birdie during a 74. Monty's 75 was lowlighted by a four-putt
double bogey on the 17th. "I tried on every shot, and I will
never give in," Monty said, fuming. "You know me too well for
This sounded like little more than spin until Friday morning when
Montgomerie, in the second group out, knocked a sand wedge into
the hole from 100 yards on the par-4 2nd hole for an eagle and
topped that with an ace on the 195-yard 12th. Those two electric
shots anchored a 67 (a score only one player all day would beat)
and shot Montgomerie from 47th place to 11th. Clarke responded to
Monty's challenge with a 70, but Westwood could do no better than
a second consecutive 72.
Montgomerie's reign, however, all but ended on Saturday when he
made three bogeys over his final five holes to finish with a 73
and fall into 14th. Afterward he loosed one of his patented
30-second scorched-earth debriefings. "My putter went cold and
that was that," Monty said. "Don't mention the Order of Merit,
O.K.? Please, I've had enough. You understand? We'll talk about
it tomorrow. O.K.? If you leave it for a day that would be great.
Thank you very much." Then the great man stormed off. It was nice
to see him bow out gracefully.
Tied at 144, Westwood played in the group immediately in front of
Clarke on Saturday, and he seemed inspired by the audience,
shooting a stout 68 to move into eighth, 22 spots ahead of
Clarke, who struggled to another 74. Westwood, a 27-year-old
Englishman, is so laconic he makes Fred Couples look energetic,
but he was prepared to do battle, in part because he was
competing against his best mate, as has been the case throughout
the season. At the PGA Championship, "we had a few too many Long
Island iced teas," said Westwood, "and decided to have a bet
because it was so close. We decided that we'd have a pound on
Westwood and Clarke travel together, practice together and almost
always dine together, but last week was so taut they broke from
all those routines and hardly spoke. On one night they were at
the same restaurant at the same time--and ate at separate tables.
"It's been a wee bit awkward," Clarke said.
Come Sunday the big-boned Irishman could muster only a 70,
putting him in 17th place. That meant Westwood needed to finish
sixth or better to secure the money title, and he rose to the
challenge. Westwood, who tied the Euro tour record by winning six
times this year, made seven birdies in his first 13 holes to move
into a tie for second, but he nearly spit the bit at the 17th. He
sliced his drive deep into the trees that guard the inside of the
dogleg, into a horrific lie within a yard and a half of the OB
line. He caught a huge break when he was given a free drop out of
a stone-filled drainage ditch, but his punch-out clipped the
trees and forced him to lay up his third shot short of the pond.
A bloodless nine-iron from 160 yards allowed him to salvage a
scrambling bogey and to fall no further than fifth. A superb
clutch par at the terrifying 18th guaranteed that he would drop
no lower. Clarke met him behind the green, offering a manly hug
and a very shiny one-pound coin.
The 17th is without a doubt the worst hole in championship golf,
but as Westwood showed, it sure makes for fun viewing. As the
disasters piled up during the final round, all that was missing
was a windmill and carnival music to complete the atmosphere.
Price came through immediately after Westwood, in second place,
only one shot behind a surging Weir. He proceeded to dump his
third shot into the pond and chunk another approach so
pathetically it barely reached the front of the hazard. He took
an 8 and tumbled to fifth. Mark Calcavecchia and Tanaka, playing
in the final two groups, followed with water balls of their own,
notching a pair of 7s. But their blunders were overshadowed by
that of Woods, who on Sunday arrived at 17 only two strokes back
of Weir and gunning for eagle.
Alas, he slashed his drive into Westwood-ville, punched out,
laid up, and spun his fourth shot past the pin to the precipice
of the shaved back. The ball teetered for a moment, then inched
back down the length of the green and into the water. Woods took
a double bogey and had to get up and down from the back bunker on
18 to make bogey and shoot 72, keeping alive his streak of 51
straight rounds of par or better. Though he failed in his goal to
become the first man to finish a season with an unadjusted
scoring average below 68, Woods did break Nelson's 1945 record of
68.33, by .16 of a stroke (chart, left). After his tie for fifth,
however, Woods was hardly in a celebratory mood. "I'm just glad
we don't ever have to come back here again," he said.
Weir, meanwhile, made an airtight par on 17 to all but assure the
victory. He hit his first 14 greens in regulation during the
final round, the same kind of precise, calculating golf he had
displayed in his starmaking performance at last month's
Presidents Cup. Though he now deserves to be mentioned among the
front ranks of players, Weir seems likely to remain the same
polite, unassuming guy who happily calls Draper, Utah, home.
Asked on Sunday if he was going to blow his outsized winner's
check on any expensive toys, he said, "My wife and I have too
much sense for that."
As opposed to too much cents. In golf these days, it seems you
can possess one, but not both.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Up and comer Weir, who starred in last month's Presidents Cup, leaped from 27th to sixth in earnings by winning at Valderrama.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Pound foolish Westwood (below) wound up winning the European money title but had to freeze out his friend Clarke to do it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN Black and blue After falling to fifth, Woods was happy to put Valderrama behind him.
In addition to winning three majors and six other Tour events,
Tiger Woods set records in eight statistical categories this year.
WOODS PREVIOUS RECORD
Scoring Avg. (actual) 68.17 68.33 Byron Nelson '45
Scoring Avg. (adjusted) 67.79 68.43 Woods '99
Season Earnings $9,188,321 $6,616,585 Woods '99
Career Earnings $20,503,450 $12,507,322 Greg Norman '00
Greens in Regulation 75.2% 74.0% Tim Simpson '92
Holes per Eagle 72.0 83.3 Davis Love III '98
Birdies per Round 4.92 4.46 Woods '99
All-Around 113 120 Woods '99
"Don't mention the Order of Merit, O.K.?" said an agitated
Montgomerie. "Please, I've had enough. You understand? O.K.?"