Work in Sports
A New Twist
In a thrilling duel at the PGA, Tiger Woods had to fight off a younger, equally crowd-pleasing rival to win his second major title
By Alan Shipnuck
There was no freighted embrace with the old man behind the 18th green. There were no ghosts exorcised, no historical legacies razed. This was golf, not sociology. If Tiger Woods's stunning victory at the 1997 Masters signaled the birth of a cross-cultural icon, his win at last week's PGA Championship served mainly to confirm that he has matured into a golfer for the ages. For 3 1/2 rounds Woods overpowered the longest course in major championship history, and then, in a giddy, sloppy, riveting duel over the final nine holes, he outlasted Spain's teen dream, Sergio Garcia, who didn't quite sneak off with the tournament--but for a while did steal the show.
Woods's one-stroke victory, with an 11-under 277, put an exclamation point on a century of golf and launched a rivalry that should propel the game into a new era. Forget Nicklaus and Palmer; Woods, 23, and Garcia, 19, have the star quality of Newman and Redford. What was the most electric moment of Sunday's back nine, anyway? Was it the mischievous glare Garcia gave Woods after making a long birdie putt at the par-3 13th, which announced the beginning of El Nino's comeback? "It wasn't--I don't know how to say--it wasn't a bad thing," Garcia said afterward in his courtly English. "I mean, I did it with good feelings, not hoping he would make a triple bogey or whatever. I was kind of telling him: If you want to win, you have to play well."
Perhaps what we will remember most about this sun-toasted afternoon at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club was Garcia's recovery--and reveling--at the par-4 16th. Having cut the deficit to one, but with his drive cozied up to the base of one of Medinah's 4,161 trees (yes, someone counted), Garcia opened the face of his six-iron and, with his eyes closed, slashed at the ball like a housewife trying to kill a mouse with a broom. He chased the shot up the fairway with hilarious enthusiasm, doing a little scissors kick as he strained to see it reach the green, and then pantomimed to the crowd the pitter-patter of his heart. Summing up Sunday's events, Garcia said, "It was really fun, most of all. It was joy, it was pressure, it was, I will tell you, the best day of my life."
It also was a day that concluded with Woods kissing the Wanamaker Trophy, and that, in the end, is what the 81st PGA deserves to be remembered for. As a kid, Woods had a chronology of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major championship victories tacked to the wall next to his bed, so he knows as well as anybody that by the end of Nicklaus's third full season as a pro he already had won three majors. Woods is still one down, but once again the race is on.
The long-awaited second leg of Woods's career Grand Slam was achieved with the kind of resolve that was Nicklaus's trademark. Tied for the lead (with overmatched Canadian lefty Mike Weir) and two shots in front of Garcia as the final round began, Woods came out with four birdies in his first 11 holes, forging a seemingly insurmountable five-stroke lead. One three-putt, two gouged chips and a loose eight-iron later, he had spent four of those shots, and when he arrived at Medinah's 17th hole, he was facing one of the defining moments of his young career. It didn't help that for the first time his antagonist was younger than he was and the crowd was rooting against him. "I knew when I got to 17 I had to play the two best holes of my life," said Woods after his victory. "Despite everything that had happened, I still had the lead, and I was completely focused on doing whatever I had to do to maintain it."
The 17th hole at Medinah is a steeply downhill par-3 over water that was playing 212 yards on Sunday, and Woods misjudged both the swirling winds and his adrenaline. He jacked a six-iron over the green and into a gnarly clump of Kentucky bluegrass. Legs splayed in an awkward stance, he fluffed the ensuing chip, leaving himself a frightening downhill eight-footer for par. It was the kind of putt on which a reputation can turn, but Woods willed his ball into the left corner of the cup, and that was the key shot of the tournament. A textbook par on 18 iced the championship. "It's what all those hours of practice are all about, to be able to execute the shots when you absolutely have to," Woods said. When he finally tapped in for victory, an exhausted Woods eschewed his trademark uppercut and instead slumped over his putter.
It's no wonder he was so weary--this was a victory 2 1/2 years in the making. Woods's life was turned upside down after his win at Augusta, and only recently has he come to grips with it. The utter craziness of that first spasm of Tigermania (remember that term?) is tough to quantify, but perhaps all you need to know is this: Woods became the first golfer to make the cover of the National Enquirer. On another occasion the tabloid pictured Woods cavorting on the dance floor of a nightclub with a prodigiously buxom blonde under the headline TIGER'S WILD NIGHT WITH TOPLESS DANCER. He has now exchanged this swinging bachelorhood for a girlfriend of nearly a year, Joanna Jagoda, a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara who has earned high marks for her discretion and poise amid so many inquiring minds.
This is but one sign of Woods's growth. Hughes Norton, the bombastic IMG agent who made Woods nearly as many enemies as millions, was fired late in 1998 in favor of a kinder, gentler replacement, Mark Steinberg. Woods dumped his caddie, Fluff Cowan, in March, in part because Cowan's mushrooming celebrity was becoming too bothersome. Woods can't fire his father, an occasional loose cannon, but Earl Woods has taken a lower profile. One of the most poignant moments of Tiger's victory at the Masters was the embrace of father and son behind the 18th green. Following Tiger's victory on Sunday, Earl was back in the clubhouse and notably absent among those waiting to dole out hugs at Medinah's 18th.
"Tiger has become his own man," says his friend, mentor and Orlando neighbor, Mark O'Meara. "He has taken greater control of his career, and he's to the point where he feels extremely comfortable in all aspects of his life. I'm not sure that was always the case."
Woods's game has matured in kind. Listening to him discuss his swing of a few years ago, it seems a wonder that he ever broke 80. He even dismisses his record performance at Augusta: "I saw a videotape and thought, God almighty, I won, but only because I had a great timing week. To play consistently from the positions my swing was in was going to be very difficult to do."
So, beginning in September 1997, he and his swing doctor, Butch Harmon, tore apart his mechanics. To the untrained eye, little has changed in Woods's vortex-inducing rip, but the refinements are threefold. On the backswing he now takes the club farther outside along the target line, which keeps him more consistently on plane. At the top, his backswing is shorter and more compact, rarely reaching parallel, even with his driver. Finally, his downswing is rounded and more controlled, with less dropping of the club into the "slot," a flaw that sometimes caused his path to the ball to be too steep. Together these improvements have cost Woods maybe 10 yards in distance, a bargain given his increased precision. (At the PGA, Woods still led in driving distance, at 310.3 yards a pop.)
In Woods's mind the march to the PGA championship began in May at the Byron Nelson Classic, where he shot an opening-round 61 and felt all the changes finally coalescing. (The 61 was a career best but left him only one shot ahead of Garcia, who was making his PGA Tour debut.) He won three times through the late spring and early summer--twice on the Tour and once in Germany--and contended at both the U.S. and British Opens.
Woods also trained his attention on the PGA in May when he snuck onto the course for a day of reconnaissance with his buddy Michael Jordan, a Medinah member. "Tiger loved the course," says his caddie, Steve Williams. Why? "Because it was so long." Indeed, Medinah measured 7,401 yards for the PGA, and when rain last Thursday and Friday saturated the fairways, it seemed "more like 9,000," according to second-round leader Jay Haas.
Woods played on Thursday morning during the heaviest downpour of the day, which made his opening 70 even better than it sounded. Still, he was hardly noticed amid the surging Sergiomania. Garcia shot a course-record 66 (the record lasted all of a day, until Skip Kendall fired a 65) that was a combination of power, touch and moxie. He pulled off the kind of recovery shots that would make his idol, Seve Ballesteros, and his mentor, Jose Maria Olazabal, proud--including a seemingly impossible holed-out chip shot for a birdie on number 2. But unlike his famously wild countrymen, Garcia has a world-class long game. On Thursday he averaged 313.5 yards per drive and hit 15 greens in regulation.
What made the performance even more impressive was that Garcia was still trying to live down his shocking performance at last month's British Open, his first major since turning pro in April. He shot a this-must-be-a-misprint 89-83 at Carnoustie, and after the first round he was reduced to crying in his mother's arms. At the press conference following Garcia's 66 at Medinah, one of the first questions was about Carnoustie, and he snapped, "I think I proved myself today, and I think the British Open is done, so I don't want to hear any more questions about it."
This qualified as a tantrum for Garcia, who won over the Medinah galleries not just with his on-course swagger but also with his Old World charm. "I've gained a lot of respect for him this week, and not only as a player," Garcia's playing partner Phil Mickelson said on Friday. "Let me tell you a story: I played the front nine today in four over, and on the 10th tee he came up to me kind of shyly and asked, 'Do you mind if I say something?' I said go right ahead. He said, 'C'mon, let's go have some fun on the back side.' I thought that was pretty cool."
Fun was scarce for Garcia during his second-round 73, when he took 33 putts, including a half-dozen missed birdie attempts inside 12 feet. ("I have issues with my putter," he had said before the PGA.) He rallied with a 68 on Saturday, however, matching Woods's score, so he went into Sunday within striking range of the lead. The odds weren't on Garcia's side--Woods had won seven straight times when heading into the final round with at least a piece of the lead. (The only time he hadn't won in that situation was at the 1996 Quad City Classic, his third tournament as a pro.)
So Sunday came, and Woods finally found a worthy foil for the next century, though it turns out not to be David Duval, who has the game but not the personality. Even in defeat Garcia was irrepressible. The second-place finish locked up his spot in next month's Ryder Cup--"I want to play Tiger," he crowed--and the $378,000 check that came with it secured his playing privileges on the PGA Tour for next season, if he chooses to jilt the European PGA. But Garcia isn't the only young man with a bright future. "I'm learning how to play the game," said Woods. "I've learned more shots. I've learned to manage myself around the golf course better, and it's just going to get better. I'm not that old. I'm not over the hill yet."
However, mastering the game is only half the challenge, as Woods acknowledged late on Sunday evening. He was upstairs in Medinah's majestic clubhouse, heading for the exit and a night of celebrating, having finally fulfilled all his obligations as champion. He was walking, talking, signing and smiling, all at the same time. "It can never be as crazy as it was," he said of the hysteria that lurked beyond the clubhouse door. "I've gone through it once, so I'll know how to handle it. I've learned." In other words, this time around there will be no racially provocative TV ads, no dissing of the President and Rachel Robinson, no Oprah, no off-color humor in GQ.
Woods was nearing the front entrance of the clubhouse now, where a black limo was waiting, along with a hundred or so fans that a phalanx of red-faced Pinkertons were straining to contain. Woods had one last thought. "That was almost three years ago and a lot has chang.... " At that moment he stepped through the doors into a galaxy of exploding flashbulbs and the kind of squeals only he and one other player can generate. The fans surged forward, and Woods dove into the limo. He didn't get to finish his sentence, but after four days at Medinah his point had been made. Tiger is all grown up now, and so is his golf game.
Garcia opened the face of his six-iron and slashed at the ball like a housewife trying to kill a mouse with a broom.
By finishing second, Garcia locked up a spot in next month's Ryder Cup. "I want to play Tiger," he crowed.
Issue date: August 23, 1999