The last time Eldrick Woods played at Carnoustie, in the 1996
Scottish Open, the storied links proved to be the real tiger.
Winds howled at more than 40 mph and Woods, a 20-year-old
amateur, shot 81 in the opening round. As he left the scoring
trailer with the bottle of whisky given to each competitor, he
shook his head, smiled thinly and held up the bottle. "This may
be empty by tomorrow," he said jokingly.
A different Tiger will return to Carnoustie next week for the
British Open, and the sobering facts are that this Tiger is
coming--after a stopover in Ireland for a week of golf and
fishing with David Duval, Lee Janzen, Mark O'Meara and Payne
Stewart--with more stripes, sharper claws and a growling
stomach. After winning the Motorola Western Open for his third
victory in his last four starts, Woods, at 23, will be the man
to beat at Carnoustie, which last hosted the Open the year he
Woods seems relaxed, as if he finally has everything--his swing,
his putting, his life--under control. He isn't one to let on
when things are going his way, but when asked about the state of
his game after winning the Western for the second time in three
years, he couldn't help breaking into a 100-watt grin. "Overall,
my game is coming around real well," he said. "I like it."
What's not to like? In Woods's last five tournaments he has
finished tied for seventh (the Byron Nelson Classic); first (the
Deutsche Bank in Heidelberg, Germany); first (the Memorial);
tied for third (the U.S. Open); and first (the Western). Woods
has arrived at that place where Duval just was, the point of
harmonic convergence during which golf seems simple and winning
comes easily. More tangibly, Woods's three-shot victory over
Canadian lefty Mike Weir at Cog Hill, in the Chicago suburb of
Lemont, jumped him over Duval and back into the No. 1 spot on
the World Ranking, a position Woods had held for 41 straight
weeks until dropping to second at the end of March. Winning,
though, is more important. "Being Number 1 in '98 and not
winning wasn't that great," he says. "I prefer winning."
Earlier this year, while Duval was winning four tournaments
before the Masters but struggling to supplant Woods atop the
ranking, the critics failed to notice that Woods was also
playing well, winning the Buick Invitational and also collecting
a tie for second (at the Nissan in L.A.), a third (Phoenix) and
a pair of ties for fifth (the Mercedes and the World Match
Play). Woods wasn't in a slump, as he had been in '98, a
transitional year during which he won only once but worked on
his technique to become a more consistent player.
Woods's path is reminiscent of Duval's once he finally broke
through with three wins toward the end of the '97 season. Duval
had seven runner-up finishes before those victories, and while
some said that he was choking, he maintained that he was
building a winning game for the long run. Woods ran the same
hurdles last year and earlier this season, and the long-term
refinements he has made to his game are starting to pay off.
Woods has always looked to improve. "When I first changed my
game drastically, I won three U.S. Juniors in a row, something
no one else had ever done," Woods says. "Then I went to work
with Butch [Harmon in 1994] and said, 'I want a new game.' I
knew I needed to improve. We tore down my swing, rebuilt it, and
I won three U.S. Amateurs. Then I said, 'You know what? I know I
can take it to a new level. Tear it down and build it back up.'
That's what we did."
The last construction project began, amazingly, not long after
Woods's record-setting victory in the 1997 Masters. "I saw some
of my swings on videotape and thought, God almighty," Woods
says. "I won, but only because I had a great timing week. Anyone
can do that. To play consistently from the positions my swing
was in was going to be very difficult to do."
To the casual observer, the changes Woods has made in his swing
are probably unnoticeable. To him, they are dramatic. His
backswing is a bit shorter, just short of parallel. His hands
are higher at the top of his backswing, or as Woods says, his
hands are farther from his head. There are a few other technical
differences, but Woods, essentially, has tightened his swing.
This has made him more consistent yet still powerful. (He played
the 16 par-5 holes at Cog Hill in 12 under and was 15 under
Woods has also elevated his short game. Always pretty good
around the greens with a sand wedge, he has moved into the great
category. He ranks 20th on Tour in scrambling and 29th in sand
saves. At Cog Hill his sand play was exquisite. He made birdie
or saved par from bunkers 10 out of 14 times, a ratio that would
have been even higher had he not missed some short putts. Woods
has always been a streaky putter, and right now he seems to be
on a hot streak, moving from 102nd best putter on Tour two
months ago to 23rd after the Western.
Woods's putter buried his closest pursuer in the third round at
Cog Hill. After rolling in a 20-foot bender for birdie at the
16th hole, Woods faced a 20-footer for par at the 18th while
Stuart Appleby, in second at the time, had an eight-footer for
birdie. In a miss-make scenario, Woods's four-shot lead would
have been sliced to two. Instead Woods poured his putt into the
middle of the cup and Appleby missed, which prompted the
following headline in Sunday morning's Chicago Tribune: CALL THE
Unlike with DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN, the Tribune got it right this
time, although predicting Woods's 10th Tour victory was hardly
going out on a limb considering that he had won on six of the
seven previous occasions in which he had led after three rounds.
Weir, a 29-year-old second-year player from Sarnia, Ont., who
lives in the Salt Lake City area, made a token run at Woods.
When Weir sank a 20-footer for birdie at the 7th hole and Woods
missed his 18-foot try, Weir was within a shot of the lead.
Woods made birdie at the next hole, setting the stage for what
turned out to be the decisive blow, at the par-4 10th. Woods
drove into the rough and sailed his wedge approach over the
green. Weir, playing from the fairway, had a chance to create a
two-shot swing but instead dumped his wedge into a bunker. Woods
then delivered the fatal shot, hitting a terrific flop shot for
a tap-in par. Weir blasted long and missed the comebacker,
ending any suspense.
Weir made a pair of birdies on the way in to solidify his
position behind Woods and establish himself as a player with
promise, although he was quick to admit that he's not in the
same class as Woods. "How good is Tiger? He's great," Weir said.
"He has shots in his bag that I don't have. When you can step up
at the 15th [a 519-yard par-5] and knife a three-iron in there,
and I have to hit a good drive and a three-wood just to get to
the front of the green, that's impressive."
The $270,000 Weir earned capped the best week of his career and
guaranteed that he won't have to return to Q school for a sixth
straight year. Two days before the Western, Weir won $143,000 in
the Canadian Skins game in Mont Tremblant, Que., against Duval,
Fred Couples and John Daly. He birdied six holes in a row and
had a score of 61. "That event helped me because in skins you
learn to put the last hole behind you," says Weir. "You focus on
the next hole because there could be a big carryover."
Weir played well in the sweltering heat and humidity at Cog
Hill--his closing 70 was the fourth-best round of the day and a
shot better than Woods's score--but over the four days Tiger was
simply too much for anyone to handle. Even as he completed his
week with an uncharacteristic bogey, Woods was spectacular. He
drove into a fairway bunker at the 72nd hole, blasted back to
the fairway, then flew a wedge shot past the flag, spinning it
back like a yo-yo toward the pin. The crowd roared when Woods's
ball caught a piece of the cup on the way past the hole.
Woods has long been a favorite in Chicago, ever since he won the
Western Amateur in nearby Benton Harbor, Mich., in 1994. When he
won the Western Open two years ago, thousands of excited fans
poured onto the 18th fairway on Sunday and marched with him up
to the green. Vigilant marshals and energy-sapping heat
prevented a repeat of that scene last week, and at the awards
ceremony Woods kiddingly said he was disappointed. Then he
thanked his many Chicagoland fans. "Every single time I come
here I get good vibes," he said.
You can bet he's beginning to feel good about Carnoustie, too.
swings on videotape and thought, God almighty."
has risen from 102nd to 23rd on Tour in two months.