Moments after putting the finishing touches on his third round in
the Players Championship last Saturday, golf's foremost
obsessive-compulsive set up shop on the practice green. Tiger
Woods's 66 had been the low score of the day at the TPC at
Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., propelling him to within two
strokes of leader Jerry Kelly, but shoddy work with his wedges
had vexed Woods during an otherwise scintillating performance. So
now he was bouncing one tricky little chip after another at
various flagsticks. Clearly he was fixated on winning his first
Players, the only important title missing from his resume. Right,
Tiger? Actually, he said, "I was getting ready for Augusta."
The practice paid off early. On the 2nd hole of the final round
of the Players, Woods was just short of the green after his
second shot on the 532-yard par-5, nearly 100 feet of contoured
green from the hole. With a perfectly executed bump-and-run, he
buried the chip for a tide-turning eagle that tied him for the
lead. Woods completed the rain-delayed victory with a clutch nine
holes on Monday morning, closing the books on a final-round 67
and a one-stroke win over Vijay Singh. In analyzing the key blow,
Woods couldn't help but turn his thoughts to Augusta National yet
again. "It's the same chip you would find there on number 11 if
you bail out to the right and have to chip it across the green,"
So it goes for the Players Championship. Though it boasts the
game's biggest purse ($6 million) and best field, the wannabe
fifth major has always been the Tour's version of the Golden
Globe Awards--a nice trophy but destined to be overshadowed by the
more prestigious show that follows every spring. Still, with his
victory Woods deserves a golden statuette for best performance in
a leading role because he has brought a welcome clarity to the
narrative of this screwy season. Forget all the murmuring about
Woods's mythical slump, the avalanche of record scores, the
technobabble about new balls and the fact that there was snow in
Tucson and sunshine at Pebble Beach. All is right in the golf
world again. Counting his 72nd-hole Houdini act at the Bay Hill
Invitational two weeks ago, Woods has won two straight
tournaments and reclaimed his role as the overwhelming favorite
heading into next week's Masters. "It's going to be fun," he said
Woods can afford to be nonchalant because his game is as sharp as
it's been since last summer. At the Players he hit his spots with
precise iron play, drove well enough to survive a setup choked
with U.S. Open-style rough and, most significant, rolled his rock
beautifully on the brutally fast, sloping greens. (Only four
players took fewer putts.) Woods pocketed $1.08 million, the
biggest check of his career, but he left the Players with
something even more valuable. "He has that aura about him again,"
said Bernhard Langer, who finished third.
If Woods's triumph at Bay Hill was equal parts luck and pluck,
his win at the Players was the kind of indomitable performance
that we haven't seen from him since the Canadian Open last
September. For five days Woods stalked Sawgrass's Stadium Course
like a man ready to begin the pursuit of history, his game face
fixed in a permascowl. Among the keynote players of the early
season, only Singh came close to matching Woods's intensity. The
38-year-old Fijian has four top four finishes in a row and has
yet to shoot a round above par in 2001. Since committing late
last year to a 45-inch-long "belly-button putter," as he calls
it, Singh's inconsistent work on the greens has been superb. (He
entered the Players ranked as the fifth-best putter on Tour.)
The news wasn't as good for Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson,
whose torrid play earlier in the year had positioned them, for a
time, as cofavorites for the Masters. Love, still trying to get
his groove back after blowing 54-hole leads in consecutive starts
in San Diego and L.A., began the first round with a duck hook
into the woods and ended it with a double bogey. Last Friday he
went out in 41 and, with a 76, missed the cut for the first time
this season. Love was so shaken that he signed up for this week's
BellSouth Classic to work out the kinks.
Similar lapses have been Mickelson's undoing at the majors, in
which he is 0 for 34. His hyperaggressive style has brought him a
bevy of Nortel Opens and the like but hasn't translated well at
the majors or, for that matter, Sawgrass, where in eight previous
appearances he had missed the cut four times. Greg Norman
describes Sawgrass as "a head-case course--the more you push, the
harder it is." Mickelson's first two rounds were prime examples.
Two under through 16 on Thursday, he drowned balls on the two
closing holes to stagger in with a 73. On Friday he birdied six
of his first 12 holes but soiled his 68 with two late bogeys.
He had a chance to regain some mojo on Saturday when he drew a
hotly anticipated pairing with Woods, who had dusted him in a
rousing final-round duel at Bay Hill. Alas, Mickelson shot an
uninspired 72, saying afterward, "I've had a difficult time the
last few weeks concentrating throughout the round and being
patient." And playing with Woods? "It's soooo groooovy,"
Mickelson said sarcastically, bugging out his eyes for effect.
"No, it's enjoyable. I like playing with the best."
That's what Woods was on Saturday. He bookended his round with
bogeys but in between played his most electric golf of the year.
Among the many highlights were a towering eight-iron out of a
fairway bunker to a foot for birdie at the 4th and a four-iron
from 229 yards to within two feet for an eagle at 11. Woods put
an exclamation point on the round at the par-3 17th, the scariest
little hole in golf. From the back edge of the island green he
holed an outrageous birdie putt, a two-tiered double breaker that
was so long he lost track of the mileage. "I don't know, 50
feet?" Woods said of what was more like a 60-footer. "That's just
luck when it rolls down there and falls in like that."
When you jar a big-breaking, 100-foot chip the next day, that's
something other than luck. Woods took sole possession of the lead
when he drained a Seeing Eye 10-footer on the 9th hole in near
darkness. (The round had been interrupted for nearly three hours
by rain and lightning.) He wasted no time asserting himself on
Monday morning, drilling a seven-iron to six inches on his first
hole, the par-4 10th. He clinched the win with a never-in-doubt
eight-footer for par at the 17th.
Since the inception of the Players 27 years ago, no champion has
gone on to win the Masters in the same year. Woods was reminded
of that on Monday as he headed for his black SUV in the parking
lot. He merely smiled, then disappeared down the road.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY