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Poy*fect Timing *PLAYER OF THE YEAR By winning his seventh World Golf Championship title, Tiger Woods staked his claim to a fifth straight year as the top dog on Tour

The moment seemed unremarkable, if that word can be used to
describe anything having to do with Tiger Woods, yet last
Thursday morning in the first round of the American Express
Championship--a World Golf Championship event long on money and
marquee players but short on buzz and fans--Woods's opening tee
shot may go down as his most significant swing of the season.

In years past the driver had been Tiger's best weapon, but
recently it had become his biggest weakness. He has struggled
with his accuracy off the tee this year (he ranked 148th on Tour
in fairways hit coming into the AmEx), and as his confidence in
the driver sagged, he had to tee off with his three-wood or
two-iron more often than he would have liked. Recently he even
tried going back to the old, 1997 Titleist driver that he had
used when he was winning majors, even though the club is
generations removed from today's high-tech models. That switch
was no small slap in the face to Nike, the company that pays
Woods an estimated $25 million a year to play its equipment.

All of which explains why, when Woods stood on the 1st tee at the
Capital City Club outside Atlanta with a new Nike driver, more
than a few people were interested in seeing what would happen
next. Woods's first drive was a high, sailing draw that came to a
stop 302 yards away in the fairway. On the 2nd hole Woods
launched another towering draw, 319 yards long, that also wound
up in the fairway. Following a birdie at the par-3 3rd, Woods's
fourth tee shot was yet another draw, of 306 yards, and at the
315-yard 5th hole he catapulted his drive through the green. Four
par-4s. Four drivers. Four high, right-to-left flight paths. Most
important, four balls in the fairway. After the round Woods
couldn't hide his joy. "I can shape shots again," he said. "I can
hit that high draw, that high sweeper shot I love."

Woods's confidence in the new Nike club--a prototype of the
Ignite model, it is 43 1/2 inches long with a 335 cubic
centimeter-sized head--seemed to free up his driver swing, and
almost immediately the tee shot was once again a weapon. For the
week Tiger ranked 31st in driving accuracy, hitting 55.4% of the
fairways. He was 17th in distance (312.8 yards). But Woods's
two-shot victory was more than simply the debut of a new driver.
The win was also the reaffirmation of a player who, at 27, has
won eight majors, four consecutively, putting him ahead of Jack
Nicklaus's pace (18 in 29 years) for most majors won; has 31
other Tour titles (tying Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson for ninth on
the alltime list); and has now finished in the money in 112
straight starts, which is only one off the benchmark set by Byron

To say that last week's AmEx Championship was over the moment
Woods split the 1st fairway would be hyperbolic because Vijay
Singh, as well as Stuart Appleby and Tim Herron, who also tied
for second, pushed Woods all the way on Sunday. But it is not a
stretch to say that from that first tee shot on, the Tiger of old
was back, dominating again--talking softly and carrying a big

Order was restored in the golf universe. Woods was back on top of
the money list. (He has finished No. 1 in earnings four years in
a row. No one has ever led five straight.) Tiger is also now the
leading contender for player of the year, an honor the other
players have accorded Woods the past four seasons. This was
supposed to be Tiger's Lost Year because he was winless in the
majors, but will anyone be surprised if he wins the last two
official events he plans to enter, the Oct. 23-26 Funai Classic
and the Nov. 6-9 Tour Championship, to finish with seven

"You think that new Nike driver is working?" said bemused Tour
veteran Loren Roberts after the third round, during which Woods
shot a one-under 69 to take a two-shot lead over Singh. "We're
all in trouble again." After opening with a 67, Woods had first
taken the lead with a brilliant 66 in tough conditions on Friday.
His two-over 72 in Sunday's finale was just a formality, given
that Woods is 30-2 when leading or tied for the lead going into
the last 18.

Despite all that has been said and written this year, Woods was
never really in a slump, but he has struggled at times. The
turnaround was one part new club, one part better mechanics and
one part mental. "When you're not swinging well and your
mechanics get off, the longer the club, the harder it is to
swing," Woods said last week. "My mechanics were off a touch.
Then your confidence goes a little, hence you start steering the
ball. That's one reason I went to hitting a lot of three-woods
and two-irons. It was nice to hit those high draws out there
again [this week] and still have the ability to carve one left to
right. I've struggled with the high draw most of the year."

Uncertainty had crept into Tiger's mind following the surgery on
his left knee last December, and it continued to dwell there even
after he had won three of his first four starts last spring. "I
got off to an unbelievable start when I came back, but I was
sore," Woods says. "I still had hesitation about myself, whether
I could physically continue to play throughout the year.
[Enduring the pain] I played through at the end of last year,
doubt creeps in. Shots I used to be able to go after, you start
debating: Can I really do that? Or, Should I do that? You don't
want to sacrifice and have to start all over again. Getting over
that hump didn't happen until the middle of the year."

Though he was careful to protect his lead during the final round
at the Capital City Club, Tiger showed some of his old swagger on
Sunday. His shoes were still on--barely--after he ripped his tee
shot at the 379-yard 7th hole, his ball rolling onto the front

Tiger's resurgence came just in time to clear up an otherwise
confusing year. Woods already has a lock on the Vardon Trophy for
low scoring average, and he's now in good position to win the
money title, with a $171,239 lead over Singh. The player of the
year race, however, is still up in the air. "Absolutely, Tiger is
in the mix," says Tour veteran Fred Funk. "There are so many guys
in the mix, though, which is great. You have to have all the
stats when you get that ballot in front of you. It's tight, but I
think Tiger needs to win the Tour Championship to put him over
the top."

Six wins would be something, but if you'd like a scarier stat,
check out Tiger's record in the World Golf Championships. They
might as well be renamed the Woods Golf Championships, as he's
won seven of 14--eight of 15 if you include the World Cup he won
with David Duval in 2000--since the inaugural event four years
ago. Woods has won more than $9 million in the World
Championships, which alone would rank him 47th on the career
money list.

Last week was a good one to be Tiger. In addition to his big
check, he won small change off his buddy, Braves pitcher John
Smoltz, during a round on the Monday before the AmEx, and on
Tuesday, Woods chummed around with Falcons quarterback Michael
Vick, beating Vick in a putting, chipping and passing contest. In
fact, there were only two blemishes on an otherwise perfect week.
Woods was surprised during a pretournament press conference when
a Swedish reporter asked if he had heard about his future

"What?" Woods responded, at first taken aback by the
personal--and presumptive--nature of the question. Then he
answered that, yes, he had spoken to Barbro Holmberg, the mother
of his girlfriend, Elin Nordegren, since she had been named
Sweden's immigration minister a few days earlier. As for her
being his future mother-in-law, Woods protested, "Hey, he knows
more than I do."

Tiger's only other misstep came the morning after he played with
Smoltz. Lost in suburban Atlanta, Woods pulled his courtesy car
into the driveway of a private home, startling a man who was
about to back out. Woods wanted to know how to get to the
Crabapple course at the Capital City Club. The Good Samaritan
obligingly led Tiger to the course. "I was seriously lost," Woods

That was an appropriate way to start a week in which, thanks to a
new driver, Woods's long game and maybe even his mojo were
seriously found.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES SEEING IS BELIEVING Despite bogeying the final two holes, Woods showed just enough game on Sunday to win by two.

COLOR PHOTO: GREGORY SMITH/AP EVEN MONEY Singh, second at the AmEx, appears to be the best bet to unseat Woods.

COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES CENTURY MARK The win was the 100th as a professional caddie for Woods's man Steve Williams.

POY by the Numbers

THE RACE for PGA Tour player of the year has never been closer.
Here are the critical stats of the five prime contenders.


Starts 19 23 16 19 24
Cuts 18 21 16 17 23
Wins 3 2 5 4 3
Majors 1 1 0 0 0
Top 5s 7 10 10 7 10
Top 10s 10 14 11 8 15
Avg. Finish 18th 18th 8th 23rd 13th
Avg. Majors Finish 10th 27th 20th 57th 16th
Money Rank 5th 4th 1st 3rd 2nd
Scoring Avg. 68.82 68.86 68.13 69.34 68.68
(Rank) (4th) (5th) (1st) (7th) (2nd)

"My mechanics were off a touch," Woods said. "Then your
confidence goes a little, hence you start steering the ball."
Gary Van Sickle's Underground Golfer appears weekly at