Spoiled By Success The World Cup turned out to be a microcosm of Tiger Woods's 2001 season: He was better last year

November 26, 2001

It sounded as if the Japanese golf writer were comparing Tiger
Woods to a funky flounder. "We have a very expensive fish called
tai," Hiroshi Ishikawa of the Tokyo International News Service
said last week. "Most people can't afford it. They have to eat
cheaper fish, you understand? But after a couple of days, raw
fish is...." Searching for the word, he grabbed a notebook and
wrote kugattemo, meaning spoiled. "When tai is spoiled, people
still want it more than cheap fish. This is like Tiger Woods.
When not at his best, Tiger is still ichiban, Number 1."

Ishikawa made his right-on analysis at the EMC World Cup, which
was played at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan's Shizuoka
prefecture. Woods and his U.S. partner, David Duval, tied for
second in the 24-team international shootout, but not before
Woods performed one of his miracles-to-order on Sunday, chipping
in for eagle on the 72nd hole to get the Americans into a
four-way playoff. For Woods it was a mildly disappointing finish
to an inconsistent year, and it left him with plenty to ponder as
he prepares for 2002.

This season, after all, we constantly prodded Tiger's flesh with
a finger while sniffing cautiously. He wasn't the golfer he was
in 2000, the irresistible force who won three major
championships, two of them by huge margins; who won more than $9
million on the PGA Tour; who dominated nearly all the statistical
categories. This year he was Slumping Tiger in the winter and
Hidden Dragon in the summer, and he arrived in Asia in early
November with one Tour victory in five months, his lone top 10
finish in his last nine starts. He lost an 18-hole exhibition in
Shenzhen, China, to a 29-year-old Taiwanese pro named Chen
Yuan-chi, which is Chinese for Tiger who?

It was illuminating, then, to look at Woods's year-end totals. He
won five PGA Tour events in 2001, two more than the next most
prolific victor, David Toms. Woods also earned the most money
($5,687,777) and had the lowest stroke average (68.81) on Tour.
He won his sixth major, the Masters, completing an
all-four-majors sweep that was as grand as any Grand Slam, even
if the media diminished it by calling it a Tiger Slam. Woods also
won on the European tour (the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open), under
floodlights (the Battle at Bighorn exhibition) and at the trophy
shop (he's everybody's player of the year). Woods was a bit off
in 2001, yes, but he was still ichiban.

This wasn't news to the thousands who climbed the hills and lined
the fairways of the Taiheiyo Club's picturesque Gotemba course.
Woods's World Cup play was a microcosm of his year--spells of
brilliance marred by the occasional loose shot or ruinous
lip-out. Even so, the Japanese galleries went "ooooh!" when he
hit the ball far and "aaaah!" when he escaped from trouble.
During Sunday's final round, played in the alternate-shot format,
the Americans were five strokes behind the New Zealanders at the
turn, but Woods sank birdie putts on the 16th and 17th holes, and
then made the crowd at the par-5 18th delirious by bumping his
short-side chip off a mound and watching resolutely as his ball
rolled to the hole and disappeared. "Tiger just has to be Tiger,"
said Tokyo newspaperman Sadao Iwata. "That's enough."

In truth, though, Tiger wasn't Tiger in 2001, not according to
PGA Tour statistics, anyway. He ranked 80th in sand saves, 145th
in driving accuracy and 134th in putts per round--results that
would send your average pro back to Q school. His scoring average
rose more than a stroke over last year's, and his average-to-par
per event went from 13.8 under to 9.6 under, a difference of more
than four strokes.

His competition, meanwhile, got noticeably better in 2001.
Average driving distance rose a record 6.2 yards on Tour, while
the average winning score fell by more than half a stroke. In
2000 the top 25 players, excluding Woods, took 69.95 shots per
round; this year they got around in 69.85. Most of these gains
can be attributed to the switch by most Tour players to a
solid-core ball such as the one Woods used to such advantage in
2000. The fact remains, though, that Woods was a stroke per round
worse this year and his competition was better. Even the
Japanese, in their moments of calm reflection, must squirm on
their tatamis trying to understand how Woods can be ichiban
overall despite being less than ichiban for months on end.

The most obvious explanation is inconsistency. Woods didn't have
many good weeks this year, but when he had his A game, he was
devastating. He won three straight tournaments in the spring,
including the Players Championship and the Masters. He then won
the Memorial a month later, by a whopping seven strokes.

A second explanation can be found in one of the Tour's newer
statistical categories. Woods was No. 1 in scrambling, saving par
from off the green 69.8% of the time. While it's clear how
Woods's skills at self-rescue contributed to his low scoring
average, it's less clear what made him the Tour's best scrambler.
The ability to thread a seven-iron shot through a thicket of
pines? The ability to hit a soft flop shot from thick greenside
rough? "Putting," said Duval last Friday. "You can hit it this
close to the hole from out of the bunker every time"--he held his
hands a few feet apart, as if describing a fish--"but if you don't
make the putt, you don't save par."

Yes, but Tiger's putting numbers were so ordinary in 2000....
Duval shrugged, then said, "The statistics are misleading."

He was right. Woods's bump-and-run for eagle on Sunday owed as
much to his powers of concentration as it did to his abilities
with a wedge, and no one who has seen him pull off such shots
before would look to data for enlightenment. Thomas Bjorn, who
paired with Soren Hansen for the Danish team that also tied for
second at the World Cup, said, "Tiger is different from the rest
of us. He does things on the last hole that only Nicklaus has
done, and he seems to do it every time."

In any event, Woods hit his tee shot off a tree on the first
playoff hole, leaving the way open for the eventually victorious
South African team of Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, and inviting
a new round of poking and sniffing. Woods had hoped to retain
the World Cup trophy, which he'd won two years ago with Mark
O'Meara and last year with Duval. Instead, he retained a whiff
of imperfection.

For the world's greatest golfer, the World Cup was a good walk

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HARRY HOW/ALLSPORT Still the one Overflow crowds at the Taiheiyo Club didn't care that the competition closed the gap on Woods this year. COLOR PHOTO: SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI/AP Flip out On Sunday, David Smail of New Zealand wasn't pleased with his pitch at 18, which led to a playoff loss. COLOR PHOTO: KIMIMASA MAYAMA/REUTERS Peaking late Duval and Woods made up five shots on the final four holes.

"Tiger is different from us," Bjorn said. "He does things on the
last hole that only Nicklaus has done, and he seems to do it
every time."

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)