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A Fortnight Worth Waiting For!

By John M. Ross,
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In both the U. S. and British Opens, Woods had the opposition routed by Friday afternoon. (Courtesy PGA of America)

With the core of the season spent, the game's analysts have exhausted their superlatives on the one-man show of Tiger Woods and have not settled on this first season of the new millennium as "the greatest year in golf."

And, considering the number of new entries he has made in the record book - some obliterating marks that have been untouched for half a century or more - we may never see the likes of it again.

Jim Nantz, the astute CBS commentator, doing his final golf event of the year, probably said it best. "I'm glad the football season is coming on. I've simply run out of adjectives and words to describe this fellow."

Those who have seen Woods' relentless and lopsided victory mark have been witnesses to history, and we'll likely find ourselves referring to it again and again - and probably encountering disbeliveers - in the years ahead. Those of us who have watched Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in their prime undoubtedly have a keener appreciation of the magnitude of Tiger's achievements, and where the game might be going from here.

Can one golfer be that good? That good so consistently? They are the questions that have persisted all year as Woods left all the highly touted challengers in a heap. Especially in the major championships, where he was the first since Ben Hogan to win three in a row (the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA), and became the youngest player in history to achieve a career Grand Slam.

Tiger's destruction of the opposition has provided a field day for the statisticians and put the computers on overtime. As a result the golf fan has been buried in a blizzard of stats and new records, like: lowest scoring average in a single season; most consecutive rounds of par or better; highest lead after 54 holes, and on and on and on. Oh, I almost forgot, the most money ever earned by any player.

The Tiger stats that really grab your attention quickly connect with the major championships; 72-hole scoring records in each, and incredible margins of victory. And some of these have been on hallowed turf like Pebble Beach, Augusta National and St. Andrews.

Remember, too, that the big guns arrive at the majors ready to win. They set up their schedules so that their games will be at peak efficiency for each of them. Sometimes they'll visit the course, if convenient, for a round or two to get acquainted and see what kind of shots they'll need. And then they work on those shots again and again, until it's time to go to the post.

In both the U. S. Open and the British Open, Woods had the opposition routed and disorganized by Friday afternoon. The golf handicappers had cited Ernie Els, Phil Michelson, Jose Marie Olazabel, and Vijay Singh as being ready to bring Tiger back to the real world. But it never happened. Indeed, at both Pebble Beach and St. Andrews one could almost visualize the white flag being waved as Tiger piled up his edge.

After the British Open, I tuned in on more than one conversation that included:"I know Tiger's a great player and he makes great shots, but he only has to play the golf course."

"Sure, history is being made, but it's putting me to sleep.'"Can't anyone else but Tiger put up a score?"'I turned it off and switched over to the Yankee game. There's nothing exciting about a runaway match."

If this was golf's greatest year, and, indeed that could be a good fit, it was not exciting sport. Tiger was beginning to look more and more like the first golf robot, and there wasn't another golf robot in sight to put up against him.

When the best players in the world assembled at Jack Nicklaus' Valhalla course near Louisville, there was no reason to think there'd be anything different about this major. Tiger was there. Enough said!But what happened next could be likened to a wondrous wave of the magician's wand. Presto! Suddenly we had someone challenging Tiger. It came from one who is generally identified by the media as a "nobody," and it started a fortnight of excitement that kept golf fans buzzing with delight.

Bob May fit the media's tag in many ways. He had never won on the PGA Tour, and to get his card for 2000 he had to go through Qualifying School. But he was no stranger to Tiger. They had grown up together in California's junior golf circles, and May, about six years older than Woods, was a standout. Indeed, Tiger confides today that when he was nine, he wanted to be able to "play like Bob Mays."

He got his chance in this PGA 25 years later, and he had to reach back for a little more to match May's magical shots and dazzling putts. Tiger had to make clutch putts on the final four holes to stay even with Mays at the end of 72 holes. They had 270, and at 18-under, it was a new PGA record. Poor Mays! That would have been good enough to win any of the previous PGA events at stroke play.

In the three-hole, nail-biter playoff that followed, Woods curled in a 25-footer at the very first hole to take the one-shot lead he was able to hold over the next two holes. But it wasn't easy. His drive on the final hole headed out of bounds, hit a tree, and then took a strange course before winding up on a cart path. TV viewers by the hundreds cried "Foul" on the incident, and the network's telephone's lines were jammed for hours.

Ken Venturi's initial reaction to the shot, as he called it for CBS, was that the ball took an "unnatural" path in getting to its final resting place. Some observers thought there was a pause in the ball's action, causing some suspicion of interference. And when a young boy came running from that very area of heavy brush, some suspicions firmed up. Did the ball get some help from a foot or a hand?The marshal in the area ruled that he saw no interference, and Tiger was given a free drop from his lie on the cart path. He got down in par to protect his one-shot edge, and he thus became the first to successfully defend his PGA title at stroke play.

When virtually the same cast gathered at Firestone for the NEC World Championship on the following days, the script went back to its usual format. Tiger came out roaring, and in the second round he seemed headed for an all-time PGA scoring record of 58 - or even better. But he ran out of birdies, and he had to settle simply for another course-record 61.

With a rain delay pushing the finishing holes of the event to near darkness, Tiger put the final touch to his 11-stroke victory with one of the most amazing shots in history. In almost complete darkness, the flag barely visible, Woods pitched 165 yards to within two feet of the cup. The gallery roared for five minutes.

He had made $1 million at the NEC, but he staged a clinic the next morning at Firestone and then raced off to California for his made-for-TV match with Serge Garcia - the "Battle at Big Horn."

It didn't shape up as much of a match, since the 20-year-old Garcia had had a poor year since nearly beating Tiger in the 1999 PGA. But at match play, anything can happen.

And did it! The young Spaniard gave Woods the match of his life, out-driving him at various times, and firing putts that often seemed touched by magic. With Serge keeping the big TV audience on the edge of their chairs, his 1-up victory after 18 holes was pure theater.

Garcia took down $1.1 million for his spectacular upset and one-night stand. If it serves as a wake-up call to the others following in Tiger's wake, he deserves every cent of it.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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