Ten months ago he was being treated like the fifth Beatle. By the time last week's BellSouth Classic rolled around, Tiger Woods had been squeezed out of the spotlight by his four fab rivals. That's what happens when you're stuck in a winless streak that stretches back to last July's Western Open while golf's other roaring twentysomethings are busy taking over the sport.
Since Woods's last W, Justin Leonard had won the British Open and shot to No. 2 on this season's money list, thanks to a victory at the Players Championship. Phil Mickelson had also taken a pair of tournaments, including the prestigious Mercedes Championships to kick off 1998. In one of the more stunning developments of the year, at the Bay Hill Invitational in March, reigning U.S. Open champ Ernie Els gave Woods the back of the hairbrush, spanking him by 12 strokes while the two were paired over the final 36 holes. Still, none of these players had dulled Woods's star quite like David Duval, who could boast five victories in 13 starts, including the Houston Open two weeks ago. That win propelled Duval to the top of the money list and led some observers to proclaim him America's best player.
At 22 Woods already obsesses about his place in history, and being the fifth wheel is not what he has in mind. That's why his performance at the BellSouth was so meaningful. Woods was brilliant for three days, shooting 69-67-63 to take a three-shot lead into Sunday. Then, without his best fastball, he tussled with the TPC at Sugarloaf for every stroke. In the end he beat Jay Don Blake by a shot and earned a satisfying victory over his growing number of detractors.
When it was over, Woods claimed no excitement, just relief. "Phew, finally," he said. "I can relax now."
He can also revel in having made a statement as to who is the Man, past, present and future. Right, Tiger? "No. I try to make a so-called statement every week I play," he said. "I try to win. Someone else playing well isn't going to change my way of playing."
Woods had spouted these kinds of platitudes throughout his victory drought, though no one really believed him. Perhaps this time he was trying to downplay his budding rivalry with Duval, but he need not have bothered because Duval was backpedaling before the tournament even began. ("No, I don't feel like I've been grouped or given a rival," Duval said last Wednesday. "I don't know if I really want one.") In truth Woods's calculated air of nonchalance is his way of pretending his slump wasn't really a slump. There is considerable evidence to support his position. In the 16 tournaments between the Western and the BellSouth he had won more than $1 million, and even before his stellar play last week he was leading the Tour in scoring average. Woods's play over the past 10 months was disappointing only compared with the preceding 10 months, during which he had won six of his first 21 tournaments as a pro, an outrageous pace that would have had him breaking Sam Snead's record of 81 victories sometime around his 34th birthday.
To hear Woods tell it, the difference between a victory and just another top 10 finish is little more than a couple of fortuitous bounces of the ball. "The only reason I won today," Woods said, "is that I got some lucky breaks. I haven't been able to get them all year." This was a nod not only to a couple of loose iron shots that narrowly avoided water hazards but also to the inability of anyone else on the leader board to mount a credible charge while Woods labored to his even-par 72. He even got lucky with the weather. The rain that fell throughout the week around Atlanta made a long course (7,259 yards) play even longer, and Woods took full advantage. On many holes he eschewed his driver in favor of a three-wood, which he hits higher and carries farther, thus enabling him to fly much of the muck that bogged down other players.
Woods was at his overpowering best on Saturday, when he looked to have ended the tournament with his 63, which matched his low round as a pro and established a course record. His day was jump-started on the 541-yard 4th hole by a 253-yard two-iron to within 15 feet. Woods made the putt for eagle, and three birdies in a row followed, the second of which—a near gimme on another par-5—gave Woods his first outright lead. He dropped the hammer on the back nine with four more birdies, but afterward he was bragging about a trio of up-and-downs midway through the round. "I made a lot of key par putts," Woods said, "the kind that keep the momentum of a round going. Those are the putts I haven't been making."
During his three-week vacation after the Masters, Woods altered his posture on the greens, moving his eyes directly over the ball, which, he says, allows him to get a better look at the line of his putts. While the adjustment had pumped up his confidence, Woods nonetheless felt jitters heading into the final round. "I'm always nervous," he said. "The day I'm not is the day I quit. That means I don't care." Still, he had to be comforted by the competition, or lack thereof.
Only five players were within seven shots of the lead, and let's just say that none of them put the fear of Els into Woods. Blake, Stewart Cink, Steve Flesch, Glen Hnatuik and Jeff Gallagher had combined for a grand total of two Tour victories in 51 lackluster years of pro golf. At three shots back, Blake was Woods's closest pursuer, and on Saturday night the 12-year journeyman sounded like a starstruck duffer who had drawn Woods in a Wednesday pro-am. "I'm excited to tee it up with him," Blake said, noting that he had never played with Woods, not even in a practice round. "I've heard all the stories—about the crowd, about how far he hits it and the kind of shots he pulls off. It's impressive, the stuff that goes on, and I'm looking forward to seeing it for myself."