The sprint International might be the most impressive stop on the PGA Tour. It's hard to beat the awesome scenery along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, the exquisitely clear Colorado mornings or the angry late-afternoon lightning storms that inevitably follow. Then there's Castle Pines Golf Club, outside Denver, groomed so immaculately that you figure the groundskeepers must vacuum the fairways. The tournament is also famous for its hospitality—the word no is not in the Castle Pines vocabulary—and for the thick milk shakes that last week had first-time entrant Tiger Woods doing two-a-days.
All that, though, wasn't as impressive as the show put on by the International's class of '98. For the first time in his 17-year pro career, Vijay Singh of Fiji became the winner of back-to-back tournaments, parlaying booming drives, precise iron shots and seeing-eye putts into victory, as he had the week before at the PGA Championship. If Singh continues to putt as well as he has for the last two weeks—he switched to a cross-handed grip in June, which he says made the difference—it may be difficult to dislodge him from his new spot atop the Tour's money list.
Also impressive was the showing of Willie Wood, a short hitter who in 10 starts in the International has never made an eagle. Conventional wisdom holds that Castle Pines is a long-ball-hitter's course and that the tournament's modified Stableford scoring system—eight points for double eagle, five for eagle, two for birdie, zero for par, minus-one for bogey and minus-three for anything else—favors the big guns. "I'd love to hit it long," said the 5'7", 150-pound Wood. " Cal Ripken would love to hit homers like Mark McGwire, but nobody has it all."
What Wood does have is a lethal putting stroke, and he used it to pursue Singh to the end, which came at the 71st hole when Singh sank a 20-foot putt for eagle that clinched the victory. Singh finished with 47 points for the four rounds and Wood with 41. Defending champ Phil Mickelson made a late rush to tie Wood for second, eagling the 71th hole and sinking a 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green.
To those who bought tickets to the tournament, however, no one was more impressive than Woods. He hit 400-yard drives. (At least one, anyway, a 403-yarder at the 14th hole on Saturday. "Hmmmm," Woods said when given the news. Loose translation: Ho-hum.) He fired a hole in one. ( CBS technicians and cameramen, who were on lunch break, failed to capture the shot on video.) He eagled a par-4, flying a sand-wedge shot into the cup. He eagled two par-5s (he had a tournament-record four eagles for the week) and had several near misses. The Tour doesn't keep records like this, but Woods may be the first player to eagle a par-3, -4 and -5 in the same event.
Woods more than satisfied the Denver fans, who hadn't seen him in the flesh before and who displayed a mile-high case of Tigermania, by hanging on to finish fourth. "I never hit the ball that great," said Woods. "I got a lot out of my tournament. I could've won it, too. More than likely, I shouldn't have even been up there. Having two dunks wasn't bad [his ace on the 185-yard 7th hole on Saturday also flew directly into the cup]. Those eagles bailed me out."
Woods took full advantage of the scoring system, racking up 38 points, 20 of them with his eagles. If the tournament had been scored at stroke play (and assuming nothing worse than a double bogey), Woods would have shot an eight-under-par 280 and finished in a tie for 18th, 11 strokes behind Singh. At one point last week Woods was asked if he wondered where the Stableford system had been all his life. "Boy, you ain't lying," he joked, although initially he had trouble getting used to it. During the first round Woods freaked out when he noticed a black 14 (in a normal tournament that would have indicated he was 14 over par) next to his name on the scoreboard. "I thought, god, I'm not playing that bad," he said.
By then Woods had already had a busy week. After the final round of the PGA in Seattle, Woods flew to Portland for a youth clinic on Monday. On Tuesday he flew to Aspen, Colo., for a junior clinic at musician Glenn Frey's tournament, a payback for the Eagles' having sung at a concert for the Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods left Portland at five in the morning and arrived bleary-eyed in Aspen. Without even warming up, he launched a tee shot 358 yards into the resort town's thin air. "Some people's vacations aren't that long," Frey said.
The Denver media joined the Tigermania and covered the Frey outing. Newspapers also carried stories about the Wednesday pro-am pairings at the International ( Sprint CEO Bill Esrey, in a shocking upset, won a drawing to play with Woods) and interviewed fans about their reactions to Tiger. One said that she didn't cry at Titanic or The Horse Whisperer, but when Woods signed her hat, she just couldn't stop bawling. A man, attending his first tournament, brought his young son. Guess whose five-year-old caught Woods's ball when Tiger picked it out of the cup and tossed it into the crowd after his hole in one?
From the first round on, Woods's week was a walk on the wild side. Starting the first round on the back nine, he holed the sand wedge from the fairway on his fourth hole (the 13th) and had a second eagle at the par-5 8th (his 17th hole). He left an eagle putt hanging on the edge at the par-5 17th (his eighth hole) and lipped out a nine-iron shot from the rough that set up a tap-in birdie at the 2nd (his 11th). Although Woods suffered four bogeys, the day's scariest thought was how close he had come to making four eagles. "It was a weird day," he said.