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Sportswoman of the Year

Finishing Kick

Tiger Woods capped off a brilliant summer by winning yet another national championship in record-breaking fashion

By John Garrity

Issue date: September 18, 2000

The interesting thing about Grant Waite's face was that, an hour after the fact, the look of awe was still stamped on it. The New Zealander's eyebrows were arched in amazement. His mouth formed a half-smile. He kept shaking his head in disbelief, as if one of those painted plastic moose that decorated downtown Toronto last week had suddenly bolted through the clubhouse with Joni Mitchell on its back. "He never beats himself," Waite said. "You can't shake him."

  Click for larger image Woods became the first player to win nine tour titles in one season and only the second player to win the U.S., British and Canadian Opens in the same year. Jim Gund
The he was Tiger Woods, who had just won the Bell Canadian Open by a stroke over Waite and by a mile over everybody else. Obviously Waite wasn't surprised that Woods had won another tournament. The Canadian Open was Tiger's ninth Tour victory of the year, the 24th of his four-year pro career and his third win in a row, if you throw out a meaningless exhibition loss to Sergio García under California floodlights. No, Waite's pupils looked like pinpricks because Woods had finished him off with a shot right out of The Legend of Bagger Vance -- a six-iron from a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole that flew 218 yards over water and landed on the roar button of the largest crowd ever to witness a golf shot in Canada. "You're not supposed to do that!" Waite told Woods as they walked up the 18th fairway of the Glen Abbey Golf Club. "You're supposed to hit it in the middle of the green."

Waite was joking, of course. No one knows better than Woods what a champion is supposed to do. A champion is supposed to break records, and last week Woods increased his Tour record for consecutive rounds of par or better to 35. A champion is supposed to make loads of money, and Woods pushed his earnings for the year to $8,286,821 -- almost $5 million ahead of second-place Phil Mickelson. A champion is supposed to boggle minds, and Woods did that figuratively by eagling the par-5 18th hole last Friday with a 380-yard drive and a 113-yard lob wedge, and literally by birdieing the 8th hole on Saturday off the hard noggin of a 16-year-old boy in the gallery. Above all, a champion is supposed to make history, and Woods is the first player to win nine Tour titles in a year since 1950, when Sam Snead won 11, and only the second player to win the U.S., British and Canadian Opens in the same year (Lee Trevino, 1971).

Then, too, a champion is supposed to demoralize his opponents, and Woods certainly demoralized the field at Glen Abbey, a former Jesuit retreat in the Toronto suburb of Oakville. His
22-under total of 266 beat third-place García by seven shots, and Woods discouraged Waite on Sunday by hitting all 18 greens in regulation and making birdie four times when the cup was still warm from Waite's retrieving his own ball. ("That's fun," said Tiger.) It would not be fair, though, to say that Waite was demoralized. His final-round 66 nearly equaled Woods's 65, and the Orlando-based New Zealander joined Mickelson, Ernie Els, Darren Clarke, Hal Sutton and PGA runner-up Bob May in that elite fraternity of players who have either beaten or seriously challenged Woods in 2000.

Trend spotters will see similarities between the journeyman Waite and May, who also was unappreciated before he matched birdies with Woods at Valhalla. That's how it is now that the game's best players shiver in Tiger's long shadow. Through three rounds at Glen Abbey the challenge to Woods came not from Sutton, the defending champ, nor from top rankers like Davis Love III and Jesper Parnevik. The challenge came instead from guys who win a Tour event about as often as Bob Knight gives a lesson in civility.

Waite? The 36-year-old father of two lost his Tour card in '99, got it back last November at Q school and tried putting left-handed earlier this year to jump-start a career that had gone nowhere since his surprise win in the '93 Kemper Open. Stephen Ames? The 36-year-old pro from Trinidad and Tobago has won twice on the European tour but is better known for dissing Woods as "spoiled" and "inconsiderate" in an April newspaper interview. J.L. Lewis? The former Texas club pro said, "I'm 40 years old, trying to win a tournament once in a while," but you needed a search engine to recall his one Tour victory, last year's John Deere Classic. Nevertheless, Ames and Lewis played the first three rounds in 14 under, only a stroke behind Woods and Waite.

While everyone assumes that the crowds and the hype that follow Woods must unhinge whoever is paired with him, the journeymen pros now see the upside of a Sunday round with Tiger: attention, respect, validation. This time it was Waite who caught the reflected glare.

Waite is a cluttered talker, given to verbal U-turns and funny asides, but his mind is open to simple fixes. He watched Brad Faxon slap balls all over the putting green at the Buick Open in August, and when Waite asked his colleague what the hell he was doing, Faxon answered, "I'm practicing not caring." Says Waite, "He's the best putter I've seen, so I tried to copy his routine, his mind-set, and wherever the ball goes, it goes." Judging from Waite's recent performances, his practiced indifference has removed him from the ranks of indifferent putters. He finished second to Rory Sabbatini at the Air Canada Championship two weeks ago, securing his Tour card for 2001, and pocketed another $356,400 for pacing Woods at Glen Abbey.

Not that Woods needed a push. His first-round 72 had the locals worrying that Tiger might miss the 36-hole cut, as he did the last time he played the Canadian Open, in 1997. But history's hottest golfer shot back into contention with a second-round 65 that included a four-hole stretch of birdie-eagle-birdie-eagle. The Canadians were thrilled, and the rest of the weekend they showed their appreciation by taking flash photographs during his swing. When Woods holed an eagle putt on the 16th green on the way to a third-round 64, excited spectators sprinted around the clubhouse to the 18th hole, only to find thousands already lined up for Woods's finish.

It was pretty much the same scene on Sunday when Woods and Waite brought it home, although late showers and a menacing sky created a greater sense of urgency. Woods was a stroke up on the 18th tee but fanned his drive into a bunker. Waite found the fairway and then hit a prudent five-iron to the middle of the green, seeing no reason to attack a back-right pin at water's edge when Tiger would obviously have to play it safe.

Did we say obviously? Egged on by his caddie, Steve Williams, Woods aimed left of the flag and hit a high fade with his six-iron. ("Grant forced my hand," Woods said. "He had hit the ball on the green, which meant he was guaranteed birdie, if not a possible eagle. I had to go for it.") Tiger's ball sailed over the flagstick to the back of the green, hopping onto a pillow of collar grass 18 feet behind the hole. "There is no room there," a dazed Waite said later. "With the tournament on the line, to have the poise and the confidence to hit that shot explains what Tiger is all about."

Waite still had a chance to force a playoff, but his eagle putt slid past the hole, his dreams with it. Woods closed him out with a chip and a one-foot putt for birdie, signing off with the kind of abbreviated arm pump he reserves for his routine victories. Let's face it, when you've won 16 tournaments in 27 starts over 19 months -- a winning percentage of 59% -- most of them are routine. The raucous Canadians at Glen Abbey could only arch their eyebrows, half-smile, shake their heads in wonder and echo the words of Waite, who said of Woods, "Right now he's an athlete in full flight, and it's beautiful to watch."

Issue date: September 18, 2000


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