At the moment on Sunday when Jack Nicklaus presented Tiger Woods
with the crystal trophy for winning the Memorial Tournament, the
golf world seemed wonderfully simple. Woods had just conquered a
strong field with some high theater at the hometown monument to
Nicklaus, the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. The
Nicklaus legend is one Woods has fed off since childhood. In a
simple world this handoff of hardware would have reflected the
passing of a crown, from the world's greatest golfer to his
But since Woods won the 1997 Masters, his world has been
anything but simple. He hasn't earned another major title and
remains 17 majors short of equaling Nicklaus, who had three at
Woods's age of 23. After winning six PGA Tour events in his
first 10 months as a pro, Woods had had only two more victories
over the next 22 months going into the Memorial. In that time he
had often been worn down by the demands of celebrity, and he had
suffered from frequent bouts of erratic ball striking and
mediocre putting. He had watched as David Duval assumed the
throne as the game's best player.
Woods had fallen into a high-finish, no-win pattern. Witness his
previous Tour stop, last month in Dallas, where he had started
61-67 but then fell out of contention with a quadruple bogey on
the par-3 17th hole of the third round and finished tied for
seventh. While Woods seemed increasingly out of touch with his
Nicklausian touchstone, others ruefully conceded that they'd
gotten a little carried away with Tigermania.
In winning the Memorial by two strokes over Vijay Singh with a
remarkable final-round 69 that gave him a 15-under 273 for the
tournament, Woods reminded everyone what all the fuss had been
about. In fast, firm conditions not unlike those that will test
the field in next week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Woods put
on a display of touch and competitive genius reminiscent of the
magical seven-month stretch that lasted from his third straight
U.S. Amateur victory in August 1996 to his first green jacket.
With his Memorial triumph he became the second-youngest player
to win nine times on the Tour, behind Horton Smith, and the only
multiple winner this year besides Duval. Woods also got himself
within a million bucks of Duval's $2.86 million in official
Woods at times overwhelmed Muirfield Village with his length
(Exhibit A: the 273-yard two-iron approach that he hit to within
two feet on the par-5 11th hole last Friday, setting up an
eagle). However, what Nicklaus categorized as "less than
pristine" shotmaking just as often put Woods in a recovery mode.
On Sunday, in the face of nearly flawless tee-to-green play by
Singh, Woods became a short-game wizard, getting up and down
from difficult positions on the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th
holes. After hitting a sand wedge approach over the green at the
devilish 360-yard 14th, he flubbed a flop shot from high rough
five yards off the green, the ball traveling less than two yards
before sinking back into the grass. No sooner had Nicklaus
informed the television audience that Woods was staring squarely
at a 6 and the loss of his one-stroke lead than Woods hit a chip
shot that trickled some 20 feet before falling into the hole.
Although Woods accepts that his short game will always be
overlooked, he works hard on it because, he says, "it's a factor
that will demoralize most opponents." Certainly Singh was
singed. "What happened at 14 was the hardest thing to accept,"
said Singh, who made bogey there and fell two shots behind.
"What the hell can you do? Tiger has skill and courage."
Woods knew he was getting to Singh on the back nine on Sunday.
"Yesterday Veej kept saying, 'Great shot, bro' and 'Way to go,'"
said Woods of his escape acts in the third round. "Today the
volume was turned down a bit."
Woods is intent on doing the same to his critics. While his play
at the Memorial was further evidence that his long game isn't as
solid as Duval's, the manner in which he won bolstered Woods's
reputation as a close-the-deal competitor. He has led Tour
events after 54 holes on seven occasions and has won six.
Woods came to Ohio buoyed by a wire-to-wire victory at the
Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Heidelberg, Germany, two weeks
earlier. His contentment with how well he hit the ball in
Germany was reflected in his candid account of how swing changes
he had made with coach Butch Harmon in September 1997 had caused
some short-term pain in the interests of long-term gain. He says
he never doubted the wisdom of the changes, which essentially
gave a more rounded shape to the beginning of his downswing,
"because when I did it right, god, it felt good. It was just a
perfect shot." Woods believes that a chapter in his evolution
has been closed and that he has emerged with more control, a
greater variety of shots and "bad shots that are less bad." Just
as important, Woods's play at Muirfield Village supported his
claim that returning to the less technical approach to putting
of his amateur days has freed him on the greens. Statistics say
as much. Last year Woods ranked 147th on the Tour in putting.
This season he's 25th.
Mark O'Meara and Lee Janzen, Woods's regular practice partners
back home in Orlando, have noticed a difference in his game.
"Tiger is definitely putting better by concentrating on feel and
being much more natural," says O'Meara. "That opens up
everything for him." Janzen's read is more esoteric. "I always
saw an attack style in his walk, but I see a more relaxed walk
now," he says. "I've seen this relaxed confidence coming on,
which could be trouble for the rest of us."
Added Nicklaus on Sunday, "Tiger is the biggest talent in the
game--he has the ability to do things that nobody else can. The
thing is, he's going to get better, so he'll be able to win
without having to do all that stuff he did today."
Sitting close by Nicklaus in the postvictory press conference,
Woods listened intently. His reverie was interrupted when he was
asked if his more patient approach extended to his effort to
break Nicklaus's record for majors. "Whether I will accomplish
it or not, who knows," Woods said, "but it's not the driving
force in my life. The driving force in my life is to get my game
at a level where I'll be able to compete each tournament I tee
it up. To have a chance on the back nine on Sunday. I think
that's where you want to be."
He certainly was there at Muirfield Village.