Is Eldrick (Tiger) Woods really old enough to have won anything three times already? No way.
Way. Woods, 17, the cocksure golf prodigy from Cypress, Calif., who tells anybody who asks that all he really wants to be is the Michael Jordan of his sport, mirrored his idol last week by completing a three-peat at the U.S. Junior Amateur in Portland, Ore. To look at him, Woods seems barely old enough to have three-peated with his razor.
Woods proved once again that he is the best golfer around among those not yet allowed to vote. But while Woods is accustomed to dominating junior events, he narrowly escaped this time. All Woods did was defeat Ryan Armour, 16, of Silver Lake, Ohio, in 19 holes by surviving a dormie situation with two holes remaining in the final. Woods birdied the 17th and 18th holes at the Waverley Country Club to pull even and then parred the first extra hole to become the first player to win the championship three times. As if that weren't enough of a story line, Woods was recovering from a case of mononucleosis he had suffered only three weeks earlier. "It was the most amazing comeback of my career," said Woods. "I had to play the best two holes of my life under the toughest circumstances, and I did it."
This latest first is nothing new for a young man already first in firsts. Last year he came back from two shots down with six holes to play to become the first golfer to win the junior amateur twice. Two years ago he charged back from a three-hole deficit after six holes to become the first to win the event at such a young age, as well as the first black champion.
Last Saturday afternoon's nerve-racking final wasn't expected to be the highlight of the day. Most in the event-record crowd of 4,650 had come out to see Woods's semifinal match in the morning against Ted Oh, 16, of Torrance, Calif. If a 17-year-old can have an heir apparent, Woods's is Oh, who in July became the second-youngest U.S. Open qualifier in the history of the event. But Oh struggled all week and was easily dispatched by Woods, 4 and 3. Among the crowd of interested spectators were the golf coaches of the three universities that Woods, a high school junior, is considering attending: Stanford, Arizona State and UNLV.
The coaches hung around for the final and were rewarded with a nail-biter, even though it wasn't supposed to be much more than a walkover. After all, Armour had lost 8 and 6 to Woods in the quarters last year, a match in which Armour admitted he had been "intimidated and a little afraid." On Saturday, though, Armour proved he had matured, sinking a birdie putt on the par-3 9th to even the match.
It was still tied when Armour went one up with a 40-foot birdie putt on 15. He went 2 up when Woods's four-footer for par lipped out on number 16. Said Armour, "I thought, Two pars and the national title is yours."
Armour would follow that game plan perfectly—and lose. On the 432-yard par-4 17th, Woods hit a nine-iron approach shot within eight feet of the pin. As he lined up the birdie putt that, had he missed, would have finished him, Woods called upon another mentor. He muttered to his caddie, Jay Brunza, "Got to be like Nicklaus. Got to will this in the hole." He sank the putt to pull within one.
On the 578-yard par-5 18th, Woods cracked his drive more than 300 yards. "After he airmailed it, he turned around and saw Armour pull out an iron, and Tiger's face hardened," said Woods's father, Earl. "Tiger realized Armour was just trying to make par, and he said to himself, You think I can't birdie this hole? I'll show you what I got."
It wouldn't be easy. Woods's three-iron from the light rough faded into a bunker 40 yards from the green. "I'm thinking. He'll be lucky to get it on the green," said Armour later, "and he knocks it [to within] 10 feet. How good is that?"
Still, with Armour looking at a tap-in par, Woods had to sink yet another birdie putt. He rolled, no, willed the 10-footer in to force the playoff. Woods loudly exhorted himself as he stalked off the green, but the raucous gallery drowned him out.
Sudden death began on number 1, a 333-yard par-4 that Woods had bogeyed in both rounds on Saturday. He hit an iron off the tee and an approach to within 20 feet of the cup. Armour also hit his second shot onto the green—but 60 feet away. Armour would three-putt, missing a tricky downhill seven-foot comebacker. Woods lagged his first putt to within four feet and then sank his second one to win.
Woods's ensuing celebration was the first time he broke his concentration all day. The kid wept as his dad ran onto the green and embraced him. Both men's eyes glazed. Said Earl, "All Tiger could say was, 'I did it, I did it,' and I kept saying, 'I'm so proud of you' over and over. Time stops in moments like that."
For Armour, defeat was tough to swallow, even hours after the match. "The biggest heartbreak I've ever experienced," he said. "It was mine, I had it in my hands, but he was teasing me. It was like he was following a script. I don't think many people could have done what Tiger did, professional, amateur, junior amateur, whatever. That's why he's the best."