Woods, the first Tour player with three wins this year (four if you count his victory at the Asian Honda Classic in Bangkok), collected $324,000 to pass $2 million in career earnings faster than anyone (he did it in 16 events; Els needed 50). Woods is the second-youngest player in history to rack up five victories ( Horton Smith was 20 when he got his fifth in 1929).
It seems that the only question left about Woods is whether he will become the best player ever. "He was the best 15-year-old player I had ever seen," says Byron Nelson, last week's tournament host. "He was the best at 16 and 17 and so on. He's the best 21-year-old player anyone has ever seen. I'm excited to see how good he's going to be when he's 22. If he keeps getting better, oh boy. I'm not sure golf has seen anything like him before. Maybe Bobby Jones."
Many wondered if Woods would be rusty after taking so much time off after the Masters and after so many distractions. There was the controversy over Fuzzy Zoeller's misguided comments, the opening of another Official All-Star Cafe (he owns a piece of the chain), the flap over his turning down President Clinton's invitation to attend a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson, the to-do over his ill-advised remarks in GQ and more.
But despite the 31-day layoff, or more likely because of it, Woods came to Texas with his usual game plan—to win. Still, his opening 64, which put him a shot behind Jim Furyk, was more than he had hoped for. When Woods followed with another 64 to share the lead with Rinker, the Tiger Alarm started ringing. Woods's intense focus in that Friday round evoked memories of Ben Hogan. Woods shot 29 on the front nine of Cottonwood Valley but said he hadn't realized he had shot that well because he hadn't noticed par was only 34.
Most of the fans at Cottonwood Valley tried to follow Woods's group. They were five deep around many fairways and greens. Kids climbed trees to get a better view. One group of enterprising adults sneaked into a house under construction near the 18th green—until the owner chased them away. Rinker, who played in a group behind Woods, was asked his opinion of the gallery. "What gallery?" he said. "I think the only people following us were family members."
Rinker proved to be Woods's most dogged challenger. He had failed to make it on Tour earlier in his career but decided to try again after playing in an outing with Jack Nicklaus in 1993. Rinker, who was the head pro at Nicklaus's Country Club of the North near Dayton, played so well that Nicklaus asked him why he wasn't on the Tour. So Rinker, whose brother, Larry, is a longtime Tour player, went back out three years ago. His second-round 63 got him a third-round pairing with Woods. "I just want to go out there and play like I know I can in front of nine jillion people and Tiger," Rinker said. He did all right, putting up a 69 that left him in a five-way tie for second.
On Sunday several players made brief runs at Woods. Andrew Magee birdied four of the first five holes and drew within one, but a double bogey at the par-3 17th dropped him back. Tom Watson bounced back from missing painfully short par putts on the last two holes on Saturday to get to 14 under and within one of the lead on Sunday, promptly doubled the 11th, then climbed back to 14 under before missing another tiny par putt at 18 to tie Forsman for third.
Playing in the twosome two groups ahead of Woods, Rinker actually moved two strokes ahead of Tiger with birdies at the 5th and 7th, then stalled, parring the next seven holes with some gutty scrambling as he struggled with his swing. He made three key par-saving putts early on the back nine, but shortly after Woods rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt at the 12th to tie for the lead, Rinker bogeyed the tough 15th, missing the green right, chipping poorly to 12 feet and failing to drain the putt.
Woods used his length to put the victory on ice. He hit driver-driver to just left of the 16th green, chipped to five feet and holed the birdie putt for a two-shot edge. Woods played for safe pars on the last two holes, a round of 68 and the win.
"You don't have to shoot 62 and run off from everybody, you just have to win," Harmon said. "The kid, I think, is the smartest player in the game today. I keep telling you guys, this is just the start. It's going to get better, it's going to get better."