They might be lying low at the moment, but Tiger Woods still has
his doubters. They aren't necessarily jealous people or even
cynics, just hard cases who've seen golf slaughter its young.
They know that those who dare to be great are either suffocated
by expectations or consumed by confounding slumps and
sleep-depriving losses, and that Woods has only been a pro, to
borrow the words of Nick Faldo, "for five minutes." Or as Mark
O'Meara, Woods's neighbor in Orlando and a close friend, says,
"Tiger hasn't had any setbacks. The sign of a champion is how he
But there are other signs of a champion, and in his five minutes
Woods has demonstrated dedication, transcendent talent and
unshakable poise--not to mention an unerring sense of the
moment. Sunday at the season-opening Mercedes Championships at
La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., Woods, with one
magical shot, transformed what could have been an unsatisfying
sudden-death playoff in a rain-shortened tournament into a
showcase for his gift.
After the normally gritty Tom Lehman, the British Open champion,
last season's leading money winner on the PGA Tour and its
freshly minted player of the year, toe-hooked a six-iron shot
into a pond bordering the 188-yard par-3 7th hole--the only hole
officials deemed playable after heavy rains drenched an already
damp course--Woods stepped to the tee, impervious to the
pressure and the rain, in the cone of serenity that envelops his
preshot routine. Shedding his black jacket to reveal a red
shirt, the color he favors on Sundays when victory is in sight,
Woods stepped up to his ball and launched a drawing six-iron
shot that ate up the flag, landing two feet to the right of the
hole and spinning back to within six inches. The densely packed
gallery was transformed into a roaring sea of lurching
umbrellas, television viewers across the country popped out of
their seats, and Woods had his third victory in nine starts as a
Although anything hit safely to the fat side of the green would
have gotten the job done--"I overdrew it a little," Woods
admitted--his assault on the hole made a statement, like Jack
Nicklaus's flagstick-clattering one-iron on the 71st hole of the
1972 U.S. Open, or Curtis Strange's smothering three-iron on the
same hole in '88 at the Nabisco Championships, when he became
the first player to win $1 million in a season. What Woods's
shot said was simple: There's a new king of the hill, whether
you want to believe it or not.
In 34 rounds as a professional, Woods has shot 67 or better 14
times. His .333 winning percentage is otherworldly in golf,
particularly for a first-year player. It took Jack Nicklaus 25
starts to win three times. The only player in history to rival
Woods's opening act is Sam Snead, who won three tournaments in
his first 11 events in 1936-37. "Tiger is stunning all of us,"
says Ernie Els, who can no longer be hailed as golf's instant
millionaire--he won his first $1 million in a then record-low 28
tournaments; Woods did it in nine. "I mean, he almost holed it.
It's way beyond belief."
Woods's shot also said that his startlingly successful run
through the final months of the '96 season in the afterglow of
his third U.S. Amateur victory wasn't illusory, and that he can
beat the best players. Only Greg Norman, who is rehabilitating a
troublesome back, was absent from a La Costa field made up of
Tour winners from the previous season.
Woods was still shaking off the rust from four weeks of relaxing
with friends and family and the celebration of his 21st birthday
in Las Vegas on Dec. 30. He set up the win with a first-round
70, playing conservatively until he regained a level of comfort,
and with a third round in which he bounced back from missing
short putts on consecutive holes to close with four straight
birdies (touche, Mark O'Meara). That put him at 14 under after
54 holes and in a tie for the lead with Lehman, who also birdied
the 18th hole on Saturday.
Lehman, 37, has over the years forged himself into one of the
game's most steely competitors and was expected to give Woods a
fight in Sunday's rainy playoff. But instead he flinched, making
a cramped, jerky swing. The ball had barely left Lehman's club
before his shoulders sagged and his head dropped in
disappointment. His shot ballooned in the wind, drifted left and
splashed into the water guarding the side of the green. It was
the kind of mistake players make when they suspect that their
best might not be good enough.
While Lehman acted rushed, Woods looked composed. On the range
before the playoff he had hit nothing but drawing five-iron
shots, anticipating that the 7th, with its back-left pin, would
be played over and over until a winner emerged. Before the
playoff, officials had moved the tee markers up about five
yards, so both players dropped down to a six-iron. That's the
club Woods used to slam the door against Steve Scott on the 38th
hole of last summer's Amateur final and the club he used to make
a hole in one a week later during his pro debut, in Milwaukee.
"When the elements are against you, it's easier to hit a bad
shot, so I had the advantage hitting second," Woods said later.
"When it was my turn to hit, all I thought about was where I
wanted my ball to go, which was to the right of the pin. That's
where it ended up, right?"
Such clinical dispatch, displayed as Woods brushed aside first
Davis Love III, then Payne Stewart and finally Lehman in his
three victories, is almost chilling. In a few short months Woods
has measured the competition. Asked if he was surprised by his
win at La Costa, he said, "No. This is what I set out to do."
That sort of attitude can grate when you're on the receiving
end, particularly if you're a player like Lehman, who has had an
arduous road to the top. Respected for his graciousness, he
nonetheless was as resolute as Woods when asked for his
assessment of Tigermania. "Guys out here are competitive,"
Lehman said. "They're not going to lie down for somebody.
Tiger's going to be a great player. There's no doubt in my mind
he's going to be one of the best ever, but he has to earn it."
On Saturday, after Woods closed with the four birdies--in the
process becoming only the second player in tournament history,
after DeWitt Weaver in 1971, to hit La Costa's 569-yard 17th
hole in 2--and Lehman sunk a 30-footer on the final hole to
regain a share of the lead, Lehman came close to talking trash
while summing up everything that had happened. "It's like match
play," he said of his closing birdie putt. "You top what he did
and say, 'Take that.' It's like, Well, O.K., you made your four
birdies and took the lead, but watch this one. Swish."
But in the same session Lehman acknowledged the possibility that
Woods might have too much game for him over the 18 holes of
head-to-head medal play that was scheduled for Sunday before the
rains came. "If I go out and play well and lose, I'm going to
know there's a new kid on the block who's just way better than
everybody else," he said. "Tom Lehman is the player of the year,
but Tiger Woods is probably the player of the next two decades.
I'm not sure if I feel like the underdog or what, but it's a
unique situation. It's almost like trying to hold off the
inevitable, like bailing water out of a sinking boat."
That metaphor seemed especially apt after the soggy Mercedes and
provoked the obvious question: How good can this Woods kid be? A
record $2 million season, with perhaps five victories, including
a major--an absolute monster year by any standard--seems
reasonable right now. But Woods, who chooses not to share his
goals, abstains from such talk, save for his mantra that he
intends to win every tournament he enters. He is acutely aware
of the expectations but has found a way to combat them. "I've
been thinking about this more and more," he said on Christmas
Eve while relaxing in the house he recently bought for his
parents in Tustin, Calif. "People can say all kinds of things
about me and Nicklaus and make me into whatever. But it comes
down to one thing: I've still got to hit the shot. Me. Alone.
That's what I must never forget."
On Sunday evening Woods tried to downplay the significance of
his accomplishments by saying that the most satisfying result of
his victory was that it moved him closer to clinching a spot on
this year's 12-man Ryder Cup team--he's already fifth on the
points list. Then he let the kid inside come out for a moment at
a posttournament party for volunteers, where, after downing a
glass of champagne, he said, "The coolest thing about all this
is that I'm actually able to participate in a toast without
worrying that I'm going to get arrested."
Tournament directors, partial to attendance records as they are,
would love to hold Woods hostage to play in their events, but he
has been noncommittal about his schedule. Woods is expected to
play the Phoenix, Pebble Beach and Los Angeles stops while the
Tour remains on the West Coast, leaving for two weeks in
February for tournaments in Thailand--the native country of his
mother, Tida--and Australia. The plan is all part of Woods's
preparations for the Masters, the tournament, he admitted in an
unguarded moment, that he wants to win most of all.
It's getting tougher to think he won't win in Augusta, and by
the second week in April there might not be any Tiger Woods
doubters left at all.