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Out of the Woods

Shaking off his Masters disaster, Tiger Woods rode a hot putter to victory at what has become one of the top nonmajors on Tour, the Wachovia Championship

Waiting for atable at a Boston-area restaurant last Labor Day weekend, Tour veterans PaulAzinger and John Huston bumped into Steve Williams, the caddie for Tiger Woods,who was about to win his fifth straight tournament, the Deutsche BankChampionship. Azinger asked Williams what being on such a streak was like."He looked right at me," recalls Azinger, "and said, 'Zinger, Iknow this is hard to believe, but the best is yet to come.' Afterward I lookedat Huston and said, 'Do you think he really believes the best is yet to come?Because if it is, Tiger will break every record.'"

After two more victories Woods's streak was snapped in February, at theAccenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, yet its demise has hardly dampenedexpectations. On the contrary--Tiger, with his 12 majors and his obvious needto succeed, now surprises us only when he doesn't play like Superman. Hislatest victory, by two shots over Steve Stricker at the Wachovia Championshipin Charlotte, was the 57th of his PGA Tour career, which puts him, at age 31,five behind No. 4 Arnold Palmer on the alltime list. No one will mistake thistriumph for a work of art, but it does prompt this scary thought: Despiteplaying less than his best, Woods has won three times this year in six starts.What happens when his famous A game returns?

At Quail HollowClub, Woods proved once again that he's next to impossible to beat when he'sputting well. Tiger had looked all too human at the Masters after taking thelead early in the final round, then surrendering it and losing to Zach Johnson.And from tee to green, Woods seemed mortal again in Charlotte. Only his red-hotputter--Tiger made 12 putts of more than 10 feet and had 31 one-putt greenswhile shooting a 13-under 275--allowed him to outlast Stricker.

Then again, onehole can turn around a tournament. On Sunday that was the 532-yard par-5 7th.Woods blocked his drive onto a side slope in the rough barely a foot from awater hazard--not a very promising situation for the average golfer. The liewas good, though, so Woods took a chance and muscled a seven-iron shot onto thegreen, one of those I-can't-believe-he-just-did-that moments. For maximumdramatic effect, he then rolled in a 57-footer for eagle (BIG PLAY, G20) andvaulted to the top of the leader board. That was only the start. Woods madebirdies at the next two holes and turned in 31 with a three-shot lead.

Normally, such amargin with only nine holes to play would be safer than a certificate ofdeposit. But strong, gusty winds made the back nine at Quail Hollowtreacherous, especially the Green Mile, the three finishing holes that firstrose up at the 2003 Wachovia when David Toms squandered all but two strokes ofa six-shot lead with a quadruple-bogey 8 at 18. Woods ran into trouble beforehe even got there, missing the green way right at the par-3 13th andthree-putting from 20 feet for a double bogey.

Up ahead, Strickerwas birdieing the par-5 15th to gain a share of the lead, and the game was onagain ... briefly. O.K., very briefly. Stricker made a mess of the next hole,taking a double bogey, while Woods birdied the 15th. That was really thedifference. "I've won a few tournaments here and there, and it's beennice," Woods said, with customary and considerable understatement."This one, considering the field and the course and the conditions, I'mecstatic to have won."

Wachovia officialswere equally thrilled. Having Tiger win your event is the ultimate validationand the perfect ending to what was the best show on Tour so far this year. Thefun began with Wednesday's pro-am, in which Woods was paired with a friend, NBAgreat and North Carolina alum Michael Jordan. A huge gallery swarmed the twosuperstars. "It felt like a Sunday out there, not a Wednesday," saidtournament director Kym Hougham. The best Michael-Tiger moment? Woods got anice ovation when he was introduced on the 1st tee, but it was nothing comparedwith the roar that Tar Heels fans let out for Jordan. Woods isn't overshadowedvery often, but he seemed to enjoy it.

But what reallyput the Wachovia over the top as a must-play, must-see event was lastSaturday's shotmaking spectacular. Morning rains delayed the start by two hoursbut also softened the greens, meaning that it would rain birdies and eagles allafternoon and into the evening, as the round finished at almost 8 p.m.

Rory Sabbatini gotthings started by holing a wedge shot from the fairway for an eagle on theopening hole. Overnight co-leader Arron Oberholser, who tied for seventh,jarred his approach for eagle at the 3rd. Vijay Singh, playing in the finalpairing with Woods, slammed his approach at the 12th into the cup on the fly,drawing a smile from the normally stoic Woods. "It's pretty cool when yousee shots fly in the hole like that and not come out," he said.

By the end of theday the star-studded leader board was topped by Sabbatini, Woods, Oberholser,Singh and Stricker. The big crowds, big names and big shots made for anelectric atmosphere and a spicy show. Factor in Quail Hollow's huge pines andhardwoods, and the atmosphere was eerily reminiscent of another springtournament. "There was a sense of Augusta out there--a lot of roars,"said Sabbatini.

Woods didn't winthat one back in April, but the season is only half over. There are three moremajors to be played, and the best is yet to come.

Stars and Pars

Tiger Woods and His Airness teamed up at the Wachoviapro-am, but they were hardly golf's first celebrity pairing

PGA tour players are the eminences of their own littleworld, and the great ones cross over to become well-known among the largerpublic. Sometimes they make friends with people who are even more famous thanthey are, relationships that usually revolve around the golf course. TigerWoods and Michael Jordan may be the pair with the most total wattage, but overthe years there have been other tee-centric twosomes.

Fame Game Woods (teeing off) referred to Jordan as abig brother, saying MJ has advised him on the challenges of being a famousathlete.

Hopeless Harmony Bing Crosby (right) and Jimmy (theSinging Texan) Demaret (left)--with John Geertsen--routinely cut loose at theClambake.

Barrio Bros Comic George Lopez (left) says Lee Trevinowas an inspiration to him while growing up.

The Odd Couple
The constantly clowning Bill Murray (left) and laconic Scott Simpson may seem apuzzling pairing, but they've cavorted at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am together 13times.

Central Casting
The Splendid Splinter (Ted Williams, left) and the Slammer (Sam Snead) didn'tplay much golf together, but they frequently ventured out on fishingexpeditions.

Paradise Found

Starting from scratch in 2003, the Wachovia emerged asthe pros' favorite stop by exceeding expectations in three key areas

YOU DON'T NEED a poll to determine which nonmajor isthe best event on the PGA Tour. The players vote with their attendance, and onthat basis the clear winner is the Wachovia Championship. Last week 31 of thetop 35 players in the World Ranking showed up at Quail Hollow Club inCharlotte. Last year the Wachovia drew 10 of the top 11, and in 2005 itattracted eight of the top 10. How did a tournament that debuted in 2003 gofrom zero to must-play status in only five years?

John Harris, the 59-year-old real estate developer whofounded the tournament, simply applied to golf a principle from the world ofcommerce: A successful business must be either first, best or cheapest. "Wewent for best," says tournament director Kym Hougham. "We wantednothing short of perfection."

Besides money, the players use three criteria to rateTour stops: venue, dates, amenities--in that order. The Wachovia is best inclass in all three areas.

•Quail Hollow, which opened in 1961 and was renovatedby Tom Fazio in 1997, is a classic parkland course that rewards shotmaking."It's one of the neatest courses we get to play all year," says TigerWoods, who enjoys the challenge of shaping shots in both directions. Woods hasplayed in three of the five Wachovias, missing 2003 and last year, when he wasunable to attend because of the death of his father. And if Tiger likes theWachovia, what more do you need to know?

•These days on Tour, timing is everything, and whenWachovia organizers learned that the Tour's flagship event, the PlayersChampionship, might move to May, they requested that the Wachovia be held theweek before, making it a convenient tune-up.

•The list of amenities and perks is endless. Amongthem: Each player is given a Mercedes-Benz to drive during tournament week--thedefending champ gets a $400,000 Maybach--and even the caddies have valetparking. Last year volunteers with feather dusters swept pollen off thewindshields of the players' rides.

The pros are also enamored with the pro-amformat--they're paired with only two amateurs instead of the usual four--andthe fact that the tournament has cracked down on cellphone use by spectators."I haven't heard one all week," said Lucas Glover, who finished34th.

There are perks for fans too. Many of the bleachershave roofs and seats with tip-up backs. Also popular is the tournament'smulligan program: In the afternoon a fan can buy a ticket for $10 (up to $40off the list price) from anyone leaving the grounds. "We want to keep itaffordable and accessible," Hougham says. "Normally you see fans filingout at one o'clock to watch on TV, but we have almost as many filingin."

 

TWO PHOTOS

Photographs by Fred Vuich

SPRINGFLING

Woods whipped his ball into the crowd after a dramatic two-shotwin.

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AP

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JOHN G. MABANGLO/EPA

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JAMES O'GRADY/BETTMANN/CORBIS

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STAN BADZ/PGA TOUR/WIREIMAGE.COM

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STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES

SPOTON

Quail Hollow's contours favor shotmakers.