They might be lying low at the moment, but Tiger Woods still has his doubters. They aren't necessarily jealous people or even cynics, just hard cases who've seen golf slaughter its young. They know that those who dare to be great are either suffocated by expectations or consumed by confounding slumps and sleep-depriving losses, and that Woods has only been a pro, to borrow the words of Nick Faldo, "for five minutes." Or as Mark O'Meara, Woods's neighbor in Orlando and a close friend, says, "Tiger hasn't had any setbacks. The sign of a champion is how he bounces back."
But there are other signs of a champion, and in his five minutes Woods has demonstrated dedication, transcendent talent and unshakable poise—not to mention an unerring sense of the moment. Sunday at the season-opening Mercedes Championships at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., Woods, with one magical shot, transformed what could have been an unsatisfying sudden-death playoff in a rain-shortened tournament into a showcase for his gift.
After the normally gritty Tom Lehman, the British Open champion, last season's leading money winner on the PGA Tour and its freshly minted player of the year, toe-hooked a six-iron shot into a pond bordering the 188-yard par-3 7th hole—the only hole officials deemed playable after heavy rains drenched an already damp course—Woods stepped to the tee, impervious to the pressure and the rain, in the cone of serenity that envelops his preshot routine. Shedding his black jacket to reveal a red shirt, the color he favors on Sundays when victory is in sight, Woods stepped up to his ball and launched a drawing six-iron shot that ate up the flag, landing two feet to the right of the hole and spinning back to within six inches. The densely packed gallery was transformed into a roaring sea of lurching umbrellas, television viewers across the country popped out of their seats, and Woods had his third victory in nine starts as a professional.
Although anything hit safely to the fat side of the green would have gotten the job done—"I overdrew it a little," Woods admitted—his assault on the hole made a statement, like Jack Nicklaus's flagstick-clattering one-iron on the 71st hole of the 1972 U.S. Open, or Curtis Strange's smothering three-iron on the same hole in '88 at the Nabisco Championships, when he became the first player to win $1 million in a season. What Woods's shot said was simple: There's a new king of the hill, whether you want to believe it or not.
In 34 rounds as a professional, Woods has shot 67 or better 14 times. His .333 winning percentage is otherworldly in golf, particularly for a first-year player. It took Jack Nicklaus 25 starts to win three times. The only player in history to rival Woods's opening act is Sam Snead, who won three tournaments in his first 11 events in 1936-37. "Tiger is stunning all of us," says Ernie Els, who can no longer be hailed as golf's instant millionaire—he won his first $1 million in a then record-low 28 tournaments; Woods did it in nine. "I mean, he almost holed it. It's way beyond belief."
Woods's shot also said that his startlingly successful run through the final months of the '96 season in the afterglow of his third U.S. Amateur victory wasn't illusory, and that he can beat the best players. Only Greg Norman, who is rehabilitating a troublesome back, was absent from a La Costa field made up of Tour winners from the previous season.
Woods was still shaking off the rust from four weeks of relaxing with friends and family and the celebration of his 21st birthday in Las Vegas on Dec. 30. He set up the win with a first-round 70, playing conservatively until he regained a level of comfort, and with a third round in which he bounced back from missing short putts on consecutive holes to close with four straight birdies (touché, Mark O'Meara). That put him at 14 under after 54 holes and in a tie for the lead with Lehman, who also birdied the 18th hole on Saturday.
Lehman, 37, has over the years forged himself into one of the game's most steely competitors and was expected to give Woods a fight in Sunday's rainy playoff. But instead he flinched, making a cramped, jerky swing. The ball had barely left Lehman's club before his shoulders sagged and his head dropped in disappointment. His shot ballooned in the wind, drifted left and splashed into the water guarding the side of the green. It was the kind of mistake players make when they suspect that their best might not be good enough.
While Lehman acted rushed, Woods looked composed. On the range before the playoff he had hit nothing but drawing five-iron shots, anticipating that the 7th, with its back-left pin, would be played over and over until a winner emerged. Before the playoff, officials had moved the tee markers up about five yards, so both players dropped down to a six-iron. That's the club Woods used to slam the door against Steve Scott on the 38th hole of last summer's Amateur final and the club he used to make a hole in one a week later during his pro debut, in Milwaukee. "When the elements are against you, it's easier to hit a bad shot, so I had the advantage hitting second," Woods said later. "When it was my turn to hit, all I thought about was where I wanted my ball to go, which was to the right of the pin. That's where it ended up, right?"
Such clinical dispatch, displayed as Woods brushed aside first Davis Love III, then Payne Stewart and finally Lehman in his three victories, is almost chilling. In a few short months Woods has measured the competition. Asked if he was surprised by his win at La Costa, he said, "No. This is what I set out to do."