Vijay Singh was impatient. He had just shot a 68 last Friday in the NEC World Series of Golf. That wasn't good enough. He had just won two tournaments in a row, including the PGA Championship. That, apparently, wasn't good enough either. He had just allowed reporters a few—and only a few—moments for a postround interview when his caddie, Dave Renwick, asked Singh what he intended to do next. "What do you think I'm going to do?" the player said. The prince of the practice range intended to pound balls.
Some things never change. The World Series, however, is not one of them. The tournament will have a new name next year (the NEC World Invitational), a new format (members of the most recently named Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams instead of tournament winners), a new role as one of the three world championships, a huge purse ($5 million, with $1 million to the winner) and for one year only, in 2001, a change of venue (probably to Valderrama, in Sotogrande, Spain).
Except for that year, though, the tournament will stay at venerable Firestone Country Club, in Akron, where the kite-eating trees aren't getting any smaller, the ankle-grabbing rough isn't getting any thinner, and the James Cameron-length holes aren't playing any shorter. "Every iron shot to the green seemed to be two hundred something," said Olin Browne, the winner in Hartford who was making his World Series debut. "It got to be a joke between me and my caddie: 'What do we have to the green, two-oh-what?' "
The World Series could have been mistaken for a U.S. Open if not for two things. First, David Duval won, and he doesn't win majors, although only a year ago it was said that he couldn't win, period. Then he won three tournaments in a row (and six times in 21 starts). Second, Firestone needed about 100 more butts to kick instead of only 43. The outing-sized World Series expected a few more, but Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood remained in Europe to fight over that tour's money title, Tom Watson took a pass for personal reasons, and U.S. Open champ Lee Janzen was disqualified after one round because he waited too long for a putt to fall. Tip: If you have time to read USA Today before your ball drops, you've waited too long.
The potential for final-round fireworks was there. The Saturday-night leader board said it all. In order: Duval, John Cook, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods. Wow, exactly the kind of showdown we've been waiting for all year. What happened? Duval, who spent a lot of time in the fairway thanks to a new driver, and Firestone were too tough. Mickelson made an Open-style charge (14 straight pars) and finished second, two strokes back. Cook made eight fewer birdies than on Saturday, when he shot a 62, and came in fourth. Woods fought Firestone's rough and his own swing and tied for fifth. O'Meara uncharacteristically hit a ball into the pond at the 16th, leading to a double bogey, and dropped into a tie for seventh.
Once the last major is over, players begin to focus on the consolation prizes, and the win gave Duval the lead in the race to salvage the season. The World Series was the last gathering of the top players until the Tour Championship at the end of October. The engraver is already working on O'Meara's player of the year trophy Woods holds the edge for the Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average, so all that's left is the Arnold Palmer Award, given to the leading money winner.
Money isn't supposed to matter, but with little else at stake and a bunch of guys in the hunt for No. 1, this year's race has meaning. Duval moved past Singh and into the lead with $2,070,283. Mickelson, Singh and Woods have each won more than $1.7 million. O'Meara is less than $15,000 behind that group, and another 10 players have already surpassed $1 million. Last year Woods became the first player on the regular Tour to reach $2 million. Due in part to an increase in purses, Duval got there faster this season, and if he wins the Tour Championship and its $720,000 first prize, he could hit $3 million. "The money title is important," Duval said. "It means you did the best of anyone all year."
The incentive for Cook, who is out of the money race, is to make the Presidents Cup team and earn a return trip to Akron. His fourth-place finish lifted him past Tom Lehman and to 12th on the point list. The top 10 finishers after the Tour Championship make the team, then captain Jack Nicklaus selects two more players.
Cook's nine-birdie round on Saturday was by far the best of the tournament. He was nine under on the par-70 course through 15 holes and had a chance to shoot 59. At the par-5 16th, Cook had a sand wedge approach, but he flew the green and settled for par. He hit his approach to the par-4 17th to within six feet but three-putted. "It was a special day," Cook said. "I hit good shots, made good putts and had good thoughts. I don't get all three of those going at the same time very often."
Duval, though, was uncatchable on Sunday, closing with a 68. If not for O'Meara, Duval would probably be the front-runner for player of the year. In addition to three victories, he has three other top four finishes. In 18 starts he has been among the top 15 a dozen times. Yes, the World Series field is small, but it is top-notch, and six victories in less than a year indicate that, with apologies to O'Meara, maybe Duval is the best player in the U.S. "It's not something I worry about," he says. "You would have to be arrogant to say you're better than Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk or Justin Leonard."