On Dec. 30, 1999, while the world nervously awaited Y2K, Tiger
Woods quietly celebrated Y24. He dined with family and friends
at a hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., and by midnight--when his
birthday expired--he was already in bed. Across the country, at
his home in Windermere, Fla., it was even quieter. The only
sound was the restless lowing of crystal and silver in his
overcrowded trophy case.
Woods is an adult now. He no longer binges on Big Macs but fills
up with fresh fruit and yogurt. He maintains a close and
affectionate relationship with his parents, but his score doesn't
soar anymore when Earl Woods gets sick or Kultida overcooks
dinner. He seems less dependent on the entourage of college pals
and hangers-on who kept him amused in his rookie and second PGA
Tour seasons. "As I get older and my friends get older, we each
have more of our own lives," he says. With this difference:
Tiger's life is a bit more compelling than theirs.
He proved that again last week on Maui by defeating a select
field of 1999 Tour winners at the Mercedes Championships, the
first Tour event of the 21st century, give or take a calendrical
quibble. His two-hole playoff victory over Ernie Els--his fifth
consecutive Tour win--eclipsed Ben Hogan's winning streak of 1953,
pulled him to within one of Hogan's '48 skein of six and kept
alive the fanciful notion that Woods can equal Byron Nelson's
record 11-tournament streak of '45, when the greens were much
slower and pterodactyls ruled the sky.
Even before Woods polished off Els and the 28 others in the
field with one of the strongest finishing kicks in history (he
made an eagle and two birdies on the last three holes), the air
of resignation was palpable. Tiger's colleagues sighed deeply,
shook their heads, and said he was "on a roll...in the
zone...almost unbeatable." Before the third round, two caddies
were overheard talking outside the clubhouse at the Kapalua
Resort's Plantation Course. "Is it going to rain?" one asked,
watching dark clouds tumble down the mountain slopes toward the
sea and Molokai.
"Yeah, but it won't rain on Tiger," the other replied. "It never
rains on Tiger."
Instead, Tiger reigns. On Sunday afternoon he stood next to Els
on the 18th tee, staring grimly down a fairway that curves
seaward like the grand staircase of an antebellum mansion. The
two were tied at 14 under par, and Woods had just given up a
one-stroke lead by lipping out a 10-foot par putt on 17. An hour
later a baffled Els sat in a chair with his hands behind his
head--a brilliant runner-up. He said, "Winning seems to be a habit
with Tiger right now."
For some time now, to be more accurate. Last Saturday night, in a
ballroom at the Kapalua Ritz-Carlton, the Tour presented Woods
statuettes of Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus. The
Palmer trophy goes to the Tour's leading money winner (Woods won
an astonishing $6.6 million in 1999, almost $3 million more than
runner-up David Duval). The Nelson goes to the player with the
lowest adjusted scoring average (Tiger's was a record-low 68.43
in '99). The Nicklaus goes to the player of the year (Woods won
the vote of his peers for the second time in three years).
Looking elegant in a dark suit and gray tie, Woods made some
gracious remarks, posed for photographs and then left. He was in
bed by 11.
It would encourage the other players to see Woods slip his
self-imposed leash. Duval, who finished third at Kapalua, arrived
on Maui looking as if a stonecutter had carved him new glutes and
abs for Christmas. "Hey," Duval said, "if you want to beat Tiger,
you have to get better." Els, the preternaturally relaxed South
African with two U.S. Open titles on his resume, trailed Woods by
four after two rounds. Asked if he thought he could still win,
Els laughed and correctly predicted, "It all depends on what
These days Tiger does whatever it takes to sustain his success.
He hasn't given up video games, and he's still coltish enough to
start an on-the-course snowball fight with a rival, as he did on
Jan. 2 with Sergio Garcia. But in December, in what's now an
annual practice, Woods went with his mother to a Buddhist temple
in Los Angeles, where he meditated. ("I observe everything but
know nothing," he said in a pre-Christmas phone call to a
reporter, sounding eerily like David Carradine in an old Kung Fu
episode.) His favorite word is balance, which he's always
seeking, but it could just as well be paradox. His work ethic and
passion for technical analysis are thoroughly Western, yet he
sees himself more as a Zen master. "I don't think about things
that much," he says. "I watch, I absorb and then I follow
Opposed to this almost feral mind-set is Tiger's acute sense of
his place in history. After he appeared as a presenter at the
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 20th Century Sports Awards in New York City in
December, Woods stood with Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and 16
other sports icons as they posed for a centennial photo. Woods
calls it "one of the greatest moments in sports history," but he
adds, "I personally felt uncomfortable. I didn't think my
accomplishments should have had me in there yet."
His colleagues would disagree. "He's the next Michael Jordan,"
Loren Roberts said at Kapalua. "He's got that stratospheric,
Woods continues to amaze and thrill. On Friday at Kapalua, in the
vigorous trade wind that buffeted Maui for most of the
tournament, he hit a tee shot on the 373-yard 12th hole that
rolled past a startled Jim Furyk, who was putting out, and off
the back of the green. On Saturday, when his game looked less
solid, Woods tied Els for the third-round lead--and practiced for
the finish--by eagling the 663-yard 18th hole.
But it was Tiger's play on Sunday that showed why the comparisons
to Jordan are apt. On the final hole Woods hit a brilliant
three-wood from the sloping fairway, and his ball rolled to 18
feet, sending the grandstand crowd into a frenzy. Els then hit a
two-iron to 12 feet, blowing minds. Tiger putted first, holing
out for eagle and arm-pumping his way across the green. Els
answered by rolling in his own eagle putt, forcing the playoff.
They then played 18 again, Els making an easy two-putt birdie.
This time Woods had to hole a testy 10-footer to stay alive--which
he did, of course, sending giddy spectators racing in all
directions looking for the next playoff hole. It finally ended at
sunset on the low-altitude 1st green, where Woods made an uphill,
sidegrain 35-footer that Els couldn't match. "He's 24," Els said.
"He's probably going to be bigger than Elvis when he's in his
40s." Later, Woods slipped on the winner's jacket (a $3,200 silk
number by Brioni), acknowledged his $522,000 first-prize check
and jetted off with his girlfriend, 22-year-old Joanna Jagoda, to
spend a couple of lazy weeks at home. He won't try to extend his
winning streak until later this month, when he's expected to play
in the Phoenix Open.
"The hardest thing to maintain in my life is balance," Woods said
in the previous century. "You have to make time for certain
things." Clearly he has found that balance, but could something
cause him to lose it? Say, a surfeit of money? A diminished will
to win? A renewal of Tigermania? His answer: "No. I have too much
pride to let that happen."
As for the winning streak, Tiger pointed out before he left
Hawaii that his five-tournament burst was still only belt-high to
Nelson's 11. Furthermore, Nelson got all his wins in one calendar
year. Tiger, betwixt his August 1999 victory in the NEC
Invitational and his win at Kapalua, traveled to three
continents, had eye surgery, helped win a Ryder Cup for the U.S.,
went Christmas shopping at a mall, played exhibitions, won a lot
of silly-season money and finished 10th in the Williams World
Challenge, an unofficial tournament he hosted the week before the
Mercedes. "That was last year," Woods said of victories one
through four. "This is a whole new year."
Maybe so. But in Maui it still looked like the Year of the
his success. "I watch, I absorb and then I follow instinct."