Golf has been waiting, a little impatiently, for the old Tiger
Woods to show up. The Tiger Woods who was so hardwired for
victory that he won with his C game, who willed in every big
putt and who used Jack Nicklaus as a measuring stick.
But for the past year and a half golf has been seeing another
Woods, one who insists he's a better player but who doesn't
score as well, who gets outplayed at crunch time, who misses
six-footers with startling regularity, who no longer says
"second place sucks" and, worst of all, who may have thought not
having to be so damn good would be a big relief.
That was a different Woods from the player who won six times in
his first 10 months as a pro. The new Woods produced a listless
defense in the 1998 Masters, finishing six shots behind winner
Mark O'Meara in an event he won by 12 strokes the year before.
He had only one PGA Tour victory since July '97 and a dismal
3-6-1 record in the Ryder and Presidents Cups. This Woods was
also passed by David Duval--in the minds of his peers and the
public, if not the World Ranking--as golf's top player. Although
this latter-day Woods remained the most consistent high finisher
and charismatic figure in the game, he fell far short of
expectations. Some observers began to wonder whether his career
would turn out to be a major disappointment.
Woods, 23, considers such hair-trigger assessments so much bunk.
"I've got a very long road ahead of me," he says. "I know I'm on
the right track, but sometimes it takes longer to show than you'd
February 22, 1999
Coming into last week's Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines Golf
Club in La Jolla, Calif., Woods also recognized that his standing
in golf circles was in need of some rehabilitation. Prodded by a
new urgency and employing his old sense of the moment, he
exploded on the weekend to produce a most timely victory.
On the same course where he won six Optimist International Junior
World titles between ages eight and 15, Woods drew on a simpler
past to reestablish his promise. With boyhood friend Bryon Bell
on his bag instead of his regular caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan,
Woods overpowered the par-5s in 16 under par, used only 109 putts
and shot 62-65 on the weekend. Inspired by an entourage of
supporters led by his mother, Kultida--who walked the final 18
with her son despite recent reconstructive surgery on her left
knee--Woods put an exclamation mark on his performance with a
closing eagle, giving him a 72-hole 266, 22 under par and two
strokes better than Billy Ray Brown.
Coming into La Jolla, Woods had given little warning that he was
on the verge of something big. He had been trounced by Duval at
the season-opening Mercedes Championships, tying for fifth; had
faltered at key junctures while coming in third at Phoenix; and
had been abysmal at Pebble Beach, where he tied for 53rd. At
Torrey Pines, Woods struggled with his iron play on the first
two days and made the cut almost solely because of an
uncharacteristically hot putter. But after starting the third
round nine strokes off the lead, Woods stunned the field with a
62--the South Course record at Torrey Pines and Woods's lowest
round as a pro. He passed 41 players, took a one-stroke lead,
and showed everyone how he can take a tournament and shake it by
Still, Woods had to close the deal on Sunday, something he
hadn't done since winning the BellSouth Classic last May. His
face an impassive mask, Woods opened the final round with three
birdies on the first four holes. But a revitalized Brown--he
finished 201st on the money list last year--stayed with him shot
for shot. When Brown birdied the 16th to pull even with Woods,
it looked as if the 35-year-old journeyman would become the
latest golfer to beat Tiger head-to-head, joining Costantino
Rocca ('97 Ryder Cup), Billy Mayfair ('98 Nissan Open), O'Meara
('98 British Open and World Match Play), Nick Price ('98 Million
Dollar Challenge) and Rocco Mediate (last month's Phoenix Open).
That's when Woods came up with the magic that had been missing
from his game. After pulling his approach into deep rough to the
left of the 17th green, he saved par with an expertly gouged
sand-wedge shot. Then, after Brown had bombed a drive down the
middle on the 498-yard par-5 18th, Woods carved a high, hard
slider 320 yards down the left side of the fairway. When Brown
finally cracked and laid the sod over his four-iron second shot,
Woods flushed his seven-iron from 177 yards to within 10 feet of
the hole. Needing a two-putt to win, he holed the eagle putt in
a style that was evocative of the way Duval closed out his
historic 59 last month at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
With that putt the battle golf has been waiting for was joined
in earnest. Duval ($1,091,900 in '99) and Woods ($791,120) are
one-two on the money list and two-one in the World Ranking. The
latter was a source of irritation for those who felt that
Duval's nine victories in his last 29 Tour events, dating back
to October '97, should make him No. 1 by a mile.
Duval and Woods are scheduled to play in this week's Nissan Open
at Riviera and at next week's 64-man Andersen Consulting Match
Play Championship, an event that could produce a dream final if
each player can get through his half of the draw. Chances are
they will also be co-favorites at Augusta, where Duval tied for
second last year after leading by three shots with three holes
If the rivalry blossoms, it could be one of the best ever. Woods
and the 27-year-old Duval are young, hungry and good enough to
knock heads for a decade or more. Both are single, play the same
Tour and, most important, work hard to be the best.
There is little that separates these two power players. Woods is
longer off the tee, while Duval is straighter, with the added
advantage that, like Nicklaus, he almost never hooks the ball.
Duval is better with the irons, with Woods still fighting to
gain consistent distance control with short irons. Woods is a
more creative escape artist and better with the flashy
short-game shots, while Duval is the steadier pitcher and
chipper. On the greens Woods can get on a roll, but Duval is
As a competitor Woods may have the edge. He put together a
superior match-play record while winning three U.S. Juniors and
three U.S. Amateurs, and the Buick marked the fifth straight
time as a pro that Woods has converted a third-round lead into a
victory. (His only loss from such a position came in 1996 at
Quad Cities, his third start as a pro.) By contrast Duval, who
finished second seven times before getting his first victory, is
only four for nine when leading after three rounds. His 59,
though, is considered one of the greatest final rounds ever
shot, in large part because he made up seven shots on the leader
and won the tournament.
Until Sunday, Duval had been the more confident player. It is
not Woods's nature to show vulnerability, but in recent months
he has admitted lacking confidence on the greens. Left unsaid is
the erosion of his concentration and enthusiasm by the constant
demands of his celebrity. "I think his life got so crazy after
the Masters that it became more comfortable for him to
unconsciously contend but not win," says a close friend of
Woods's. "Maybe with that he lost a little intensity and work
ethic. The best thing to get him out of that has been the play
of David Duval."
Bell, who has known Woods since they were seventh-graders at
Orange View Junior High in Anaheim, saw a difference in his
friend from the last time he had caddied for him--in Woods's win
at the 1996 U.S. Amateur. "He hits the ball a lot shorter,
especially with his irons, and under more control," says Bell.
"But I saw something else in Tiger that I'd never seen before:
He always used to think he could win, he prepared to win, and he
won. He hasn't always been able to do that as a pro, and for the
first time, I sensed he had some doubt in his own ability. I've
never really had to encourage Tiger, but I felt like I had to
this week. I told him, 'You are so talented that if you play
well, there's no one who can beat you. Now go out and put up a
number.' He shot 62."
Woods denies that he's had a crisis of confidence and agrees
that Duval's emergence has been a plus for him because it has
taken away some of the spotlight. But he does not say Bell is
wrong. "I respect Bryon more as a friend than as a caddie," says
Woods. "He knows my game, but more important, he knows me."
So does Tida Woods, who was smiling through her pain on Sunday
evening as she hugged her son on the 18th green. "Mom, are you
all right?" Tiger asked.
"I'm all right as long as you win," Tida said. That's the way a
lot of people see it, and after Woods's victory at Torrey Pines
they--and he--felt a lot better.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL
Since 1997 David Duval (above), who skipped the Buick, and Tiger
Woods have dominated the PGA Tour. As the numbers below show,
it's difficult to discern a clear advantage for either.
EVENTS WINS TOP 3S TOP 10S SCORING AVG. EARNINGS
David Duval 56 9 13 21 69.90 $5,568,239
Tiger Woods 45 6 13 25 69.84 $4,699,070