The streak is dead. Long live the Streak. Golf is a mercurial
game, and notoriously fickle. Ask Tiger Woods, who seems to have
been dumped by the game he loves.
Woods had six straight victories on Tour and was about to make
it seven--all America was certain--with another amazing
comeback, at last month's Buick Invitational. Then Phil
Mickelson did a NASDAQ on the closing holes, Woods did a Dow
Jones and the Streak was over.
A week later Woods was poised to strike again, lurking three
shots off the lead going into the final round of the Nissan Open.
But then he bogeyed three straight holes on the front nine, and
instead of starting a new streak, he watched one end. Kirk
Triplett, who had never won in his 10-year Tour career, became
Woods figured to stop what was suddenly a streak of missed
opportunities at last week's Andersen Consulting World Match
Play Championship at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif.
Two days of torrential rain softened the 7,046-yard course,
making it a big hitter's paradise, and Woods, as those of you
not still hiding in your Y2K shelters know, is the biggest
hitter of them all. The setup was made to order for him, and the
other 63 players in the elite field seemed to know it. Woods's
first five opponents were a cumulative two under par against
him, even though everyone was allowed to lift, clean and all but
tee up their balls in the soggy fairways. Woods was 21 under and
won all five matches with varying degrees of ease.
In his first-round match Woods faced Michael Campbell, who has
won four times in Australia and Asia since November and was
supposed to be the world's second-hottest player. He was 3 down
to Woods after four holes, then missed a two-foot gimme on the
6th and lost 5 and 4. Shigeki Maruyama of Japan, who had replied,
"No chance," when someone asked him if he could catch Tiger at
the Buick, might also have been forecasting the result of his
third-round match with Woods last week. He was blitzed 4 and 3.
In the quarterfinals British Open champ Paul Lawrie went 2 up on
Woods with eight holes to play, then couldn't have found a
fairway or a green if his life depended on it and even chunked a
chip like a 14 handicapper. He lost one up. In last Saturday's
semifinals Davis Love III failed to get a shot out of a bunker,
something he probably doesn't do more than once every two years.
Not that it mattered, considering that Woods had two eagles and
four birdies during the 5-and-4 drubbing.
After all Woods had done, beating Darren Clarke--a teddy bear of a
man from Northern Ireland who was ranked 19th in the world--in the
36-hole final seemed like a sure thing. Only a few people weren't
buying, and they all had a rooting interest. Before the
tournament Louis Martin, the commissioner of the Southern Africa
tour, had placed a wager on Clarke at 66-to-1 odds. Before the
semifinals Butch Harmon, the swing coach who works for Woods and
Clarke, had predicted that the Irishman would smoke No. 2-ranked
David Duval like a salmon, and he did, 4 and 2. Clarke's manager,
Chubby Chandler, also had an inkling that his man wasn't going to
roll over when he saw Clarke heading back out to the practice
range on Saturday night despite a long day against Hal Sutton and
Martin, Harmon and Chandler were probably the only three people
on the planet who weren't surprised when the Showdown at Sure
Thing turned into an ambush. Clarke put on one of the finest
displays of golf in the last decade or so to whip Woods 4 and 3.
Clarke had 12 birdies and a lone bogey in 33 holes, a near
perfect performance. "He did to Tiger what Tiger has been doing
to everybody else," said Harmon. "He kicked his butt and looked
him right in the eye while he was doing it." Woods confirmed the
worst. "Darren flat outplayed me," he said.
Woods was even outcooled by Clarke. Here's what was said in the
van that carried Clarke back to the clubhouse on Saturday after
he had destroyed Duval.
Clarke: "What time am I off tomorrow?"
Clarke: "Why so early?"
Chandler: "It's 36 holes."
Clarke: "Is it?"
Harmon, in the strange position of having two of his players meet
in the final, at first stayed with Woods on the practice range
before Sunday's match. When Woods went off to chip and putt,
Harmon walked toward Clarke, who laughingly waved him away. "You
don't need to come down," he said. "I'm hitting it perfect."
That was evident on the first 18. Woods and Clarke combined for
11 birdies over the opening 12 holes, then their putters cooled
off, with Clarke missing a four-footer on the 18th that would
have given him a one-up lead. During the break Woods, unhappy
with the way he was swinging, rushed to the range for Band-Aids
from Butch. The 6'2", 225-pound Clarke had lunch in the
clubhouse. "I asked Darren if he was going to hit any balls, and
he said no," Harmon said. "He didn't want to go down to the
range because then he'd have to walk back up to the clubhouse,
and he was too tired. He didn't need to, anyway, the way he was
Well-rested and well-fed, Clarke won the match by making birdies
on four of the next eight holes to surge to a 4-up advantage. At
that point Woods was as helpless as Scott Hoch had been the day
before when he was overcome by Duval in the quarterfinals and
groaned, "Where's Tonya Harding when you need her?"
Woods was so frustrated by his inability to mount a comeback
that he dropped the f word on a national television audience
after hitting a three-wood into a bunker on the short side of
the green at the 541-yard par-5 30th (12th) hole. The shot
highlighted one of the few flaws in Woods's game. Sometimes the
club gets "stuck," to use Tiger's word, behind his body, causing
him to flare shots to the right. "Normally I would have hit a
two-iron there, but since I wasn't hitting it solid, there was
no point," Woods said. "So I thought, Why don't I hit a
three-wood and heel-skank it up there and maybe get it on the
green?" With Clarke looking at a long birdie putt, Woods tried
to finesse his bunker shot close for the birdie he had to have
but left his ball in the sand. "Is this James Woods?" said a
surprised spectator. "No, Icky Woods," someone else replied.
After blasting onto the green, Woods missed a four-footer for
par, dropped his head in disappointment, and the game was up.
"I was expecting Tiger to do a couple of special things and have
a go at me," Clarke said. "Even at 4 up I wasn't relaxing any. To
play against Tiger, the Number 1 player in the world, and come
out on top, it's a great feeling. I can play pretty good whenever
I'm on, but this week has been special."
Americans first noticed Clarke, 31, in the 1997 British Open at
Royal Troon, where he tied for second behind Justin Leonard.
Europeans know him as an amazing talent who has twice shot 60
but has won only five European tour events since turning pro 10
years ago. Many observers were comparing his victory last week
to Duval's first win, which led to a string of triumphs. "Darren
has always been an underachiever," said Chandler. "Today is the
first day I've ever been able to say, 'He's an achiever now.'
This is as good a stretch of golf as I've ever seen."
What has taken Clarke so long, and what turned him around?
Friends say that he had lacked maturity. Born and raised in
Dungannon, he was recruited by Wake Forest in 1985. When he
arrived on campus, coaches told him that he had to cut out
drinking, smoking and keeping late hours, so he left school--the
Clarke is also a perfectionist, and he had the habit of
questioning his swing after a few bad shots. He has shown more
confidence since he started working with Harmon, a relationship
that began after last year's Masters, and he played well in the
1999 Ryder Cup--he was 2-3 but teamed with Lee Westwood to beat
Duval and Woods in foursomes on the first day. Before making his
2000 debut in the Nissan Open, Clarke bumped into Woods while
visiting Harmon at his teaching base in Las Vegas. The two
players say they're friends, and that may be one reason Clarke
wasn't intimidated by Woods. Another reason? "Darren doesn't play
the U.S. Tour much, so he hasn't had his head kicked in by Tiger
all the time," says Chandler. "We come over now, and Darren says,
'Oh, let's have a go at Tiger.' The other guys are getting used
to Tiger beating them. We only see it on the telly."
There were two other crucial moments leading to Clarke's big win
that went largely unnoticed. One occurred on Saturday morning in
the quarterfinals against Sutton. Three up after four holes,
Sutton, who had drilled Clarke 4 and 2 in their singles match at
the Ryder Cup, split the 5th fairway with his drive. Clarke's
tee shot jumped way right and was headed for the rough when it
struck one of the overhead power lines that mar the La Costa
layout. Clarke was allowed to re-tee, and this time he hit the
fairway. When Sutton chunked his approach, failed to get up and
down and made bogey, he not only lost the hole to Clarke's par,
but also lost his momentum and eventually the match, one up.
The other critical moment came on Feb. 19, the Saturday before
the Match Play. Clarke had missed the cut at Riviera the day
before, and he and Chandler decided to drive to La Costa for an
early practice round. Clarke spotted Chandler four shots a side
and lost 6 and 5. "It was a stuffing," said Clarke, who,
following their custom, was forced to pay up before leaving the
18th green. Of course, $175 is small change for a man who owns
two Ferraris, a couple of BMWs and collects fine red wine.
Chandler never stopped crowing about his great victory. "I'm the
only guy who beat Darren at La Costa all week," he bragged.
"I've got a picture of the two of us with the trophy. I'm going
to ask him who gets to keep it."
[Woods's] butt and looked him in the eye while he was doing it."