Spring break is over, fellas. It officially ended when Tiger
Woods hugged the Duchess of York. Timeout for a double-take.
Woods won again? For the fifth time in 16 tournaments since
turning pro? After taking a month off following his win at the
Masters? Yes, yes and yes.
Was that really Fergie next to the 18th green at the TPC at Four
Seasons-Las Colinas in Irving, Texas, on Sunday? Was she
standing in line to get a Tiger-hug from the winner? And has she
really slimmed down, or is it just that TV makes her look
thinner? Yes, yes and let's go to the replay.
If you get the feeling we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, you
are so right. Woods has taken the PGA Tour to a new address, a
strange and wonderful place where golfers hang out with Kev and
Mike (as in Costner and Jordan) and chat with Oprah and Barbara
Walters and tell the President, not now, man, I'm going to
Mexico for a couple of days.
The massive crowds that watch Woods's every move wherever he
plays seem to know that the 21-year-old kid with the meltdown
smile is already a way better golfer than anyone else. What
started as Tigermania has evolved into something else.
Tigerfrenzy? Tigerhysteria? How about Tigershock?
The overnight TV ratings for Sunday's final round showed a 158%
jump from a year ago, up from a 2.4 rating with a six share to a
6.2 rating and a 14 share, despite going head-to-head with Game
7 of the New York Knicks-Miami Heat series. Tigershock, indeed.
"He won three U.S. Juniors and three Amateurs, and he steps out
on the big circuit and continues to win," says Dan Forsman, who
missed the cut this year in Augusta but hung around so he could
follow Woods on the weekend. "It's overwhelming in some
respects. Words don't do him justice. I don't know how he does
it, but he's doing it."
There were so many fans at Las Colinas that the GTE Byron Nelson
Classic cut off ticket sales after 100,000 one-day badges and
50,000 weekly passes were sold. And when Tiger committed to play
this week at Colonial in nearby Fort Worth, ticket sales were
capped there, too. Back-to-back sellouts in golf? This must be
Woods lived up to all expectations. Even though he didn't play
anywhere near his best, he tied the tournament scoring record
(17-under-par 263, set by Ernie Els in 1995). That's the scary
part. "Nobody's unbeatable," Lee Rinker said after the third
round, when he trailed Woods by two shots. Woods was beatable at
the Nelson, but nobody seemed able to lay a hand on him.
"Last year I predicted Tiger would win five times and earn over
$2 million this year," says Paul Stankowski, whose tie for fifth
at Las Colinas was his 10th finish of 14th or better this
season. "My friends were like, 'You think so?' I said, 'Trust
me, guys. He'll win a lot.' But I might've set the numbers a
More scary stuff: Woods led the tournament stats in putting and
driving distance, averaging 309.5 yards. Phil Mickelson was
second longest, about 18 yards shorter, and only three other
players were within 20 yards of Tiger. That takes us to the
scariest part of all. Woods didn't dominate because of his
length. He had to maneuver his ball around Las Colinas with its
doglegs, fairway bunkers, water hazards and tight landing areas.
And he didn't win because of perfect technique. (He was so
worried about his swing that he had Butch Harmon, his coach,
make an unscheduled 41/2-hour drive from his home in Houston for
an emergency lesson on Sunday morning.) Woods put a full Nelson
on the Byron Nelson with his short game and course management.
"Winning like this means a lot, it really does," Woods said. "It
shows that if you think well and have a good short game, you can
win. Ask Nicklaus how many times he's had his A game in a major.
He would say none. He's never, ever had it. He always managed
his game well. I did that this week. I had to rely on my mind
and my short game to get me through."
Rinker, a 36-year-old former club pro who clinched a spot on
Tour in 1998 by finishing two shots behind Woods in second,
wasn't buying Tiger's rap. "I think he's closer to his A game
than he's letting on," he said. "What's his A game--40 under
par? But there's no doubt that he's impressive. If he's on, he
could shoot in the 50s."
Woods, the first Tour player with three wins this year (four if
you count his victory at the Asian Honda Classic in Bangkok),
collected $324,000 to pass $2 million in career earnings faster
than anyone (he did it in 16 events; Els needed 50). Woods is
the second-youngest player in history to rack up five victories
(Horton Smith was 20 when he got his fifth in 1929).
It seems that the only question left about Woods is whether he
will become the best player ever. "He was the best 15-year-old
player I had ever seen," says Byron Nelson, last week's
tournament host. "He was the best at 16 and 17 and so on. He's
the best 21-year-old player anyone has ever seen. I'm excited to
see how good he's going to be when he's 22. If he keeps getting
better, oh boy. I'm not sure golf has seen anything like him
before. Maybe Bobby Jones."
Many wondered if Woods would be rusty after taking so much time
off after the Masters and after so many distractions. There was
the controversy over Fuzzy Zoeller's misguided comments, the
opening of another Official All-Star Cafe (he owns a piece of
the chain), the flap over his turning down President Clinton's
invitation to attend a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson, the
to-do over his ill-advised remarks in GQ and more.
But despite the 31-day layoff, or more likely because of it,
Woods came to Texas with his usual game plan--to win. Still, his
opening 64, which put him a shot behind Jim Furyk, was more than
he had hoped for. When Woods followed with another 64 to share
the lead with Rinker, the Tiger Alarm started ringing. Woods's
intense focus in that Friday round evoked memories of Ben Hogan.
Woods shot 29 on the front nine of Cottonwood Valley but said he
hadn't realized he had shot that well because he hadn't noticed
par was only 34.
Most of the fans at Cottonwood Valley tried to follow Woods's
group. They were five deep around many fairways and greens. Kids
climbed trees to get a better view. One group of enterprising
adults sneaked into a house under construction near the 18th
green--until the owner chased them away. Rinker, who played in a
group behind Woods, was asked his opinion of the gallery. "What
gallery?" he said. "I think the only people following us were
Rinker proved to be Woods's most dogged challenger. He had
failed to make it on Tour earlier in his career but decided to
try again after playing in an outing with Jack Nicklaus in 1993.
Rinker, who was the head pro at Nicklaus's Country Club of the
North near Dayton, played so well that Nicklaus asked him why he
wasn't on the Tour. So Rinker, whose brother, Larry, is a
longtime Tour player, went back out three years ago. His
second-round 63 got him a third-round pairing with Woods. "I
just want to go out there and play like I know I can in front of
nine jillion people and Tiger," Rinker said. He did all right,
putting up a 69 that left him in a five-way tie for second.
On Sunday several players made brief runs at Woods. Andrew Magee
birdied four of the first five holes and drew within one, but a
double bogey at the par-3 17th dropped him back. Tom Watson
bounced back from missing painfully short par putts on the last
two holes on Saturday to get to 14 under and within one of the
lead on Sunday, promptly doubled the 11th, then climbed back to
14 under before missing another tiny par putt at 18 to tie
Forsman for third.
Playing in the twosome two groups ahead of Woods, Rinker
actually moved two strokes ahead of Tiger with birdies at the
5th and 7th, then stalled, parring the next seven holes with
some gutty scrambling as he struggled with his swing. He made
three key par-saving putts early on the back nine, but shortly
after Woods rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt at the 12th to tie
for the lead, Rinker bogeyed the tough 15th, missing the green
right, chipping poorly to 12 feet and failing to drain the putt.
Woods used his length to put the victory on ice. He hit
driver-driver to just left of the 16th green, chipped to five
feet and holed the birdie putt for a two-shot edge. Woods played
for safe pars on the last two holes, a round of 68 and the win.
"You don't have to shoot 62 and run off from everybody, you just
have to win," Harmon said. "The kid, I think, is the smartest
player in the game today. I keep telling you guys, this is just
the start. It's going to get better, it's going to get better."
He laughed an assured laugh as he looked down toward the 18th
green, where Woods accepted the winner's trophy, said a few
gracious words, thanked all the right people and drew cheers for
saying he would be back next year, speaking fluent Texan by
using "y'all" in a sentence. The elevated 1st tee, where Harmon
stood, was a nice vantage point. With the early-evening sunlight
falling just right, you might have mistaken it for the top of