At the moment on Sunday when Jack Nicklaus presented Tiger Woods with the crystal trophy for winning the Memorial Tournament, the golf world seemed wonderfully simple. Woods had just conquered a strong field with some high theater at the hometown monument to Nicklaus, the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio. The Nicklaus legend is one Woods has fed off since childhood. In a simple world this handoff of hardware would have reflected the passing of a crown, from the world's greatest golfer to his logical successor.
But since Woods won the 1997 Masters, his world has been anything but simple. He hasn't earned another major title and remains 17 majors short of equaling Nicklaus, who had three at Woods's age of 23. After winning six PGA Tour events in his first 10 months as a pro, Woods had had only two more victories over the next 22 months going into the Memorial. In that time he had often been worn down by the demands of celebrity, and he had suffered from frequent bouts of erratic ball striking and mediocre putting. He had watched as David Duval assumed the throne as the game's best player.
Woods had fallen into a high-finish, no-win pattern. Witness his previous Tour stop, last month in Dallas, where he had started 61-67 but then fell out of contention with a quadruple bogey on the par-3 17th hole of the third round and finished tied for seventh. While Woods seemed increasingly out of touch with his Nicklausian touchstone, others ruefully conceded that they'd gotten a little carried away with Tigermania.
In winning the Memorial by two strokes over Vijay Singh with a remarkable final-round 69 that gave him a 15-under 273 for the tournament, Woods reminded everyone what all the fuss had been about. In fast, firm conditions not unlike those that will test the field in next week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, Woods put on a display of touch and competitive genius reminiscent of the magical seven-month stretch that lasted from his third straight U.S. Amateur victory in August 1996 to his first green jacket. With his Memorial triumph he became the second-youngest player to win nine times on the Tour, behind Horton Smith, and the only multiple winner this year besides Duval. Woods also got himself within a million bucks of Duval's $2.86 million in official earnings.
Woods at times overwhelmed Muirfield Village with his length (Exhibit A: the 273-yard two-iron approach mat he hit to within two feet on the par-5 11th hole last Friday, setting up an eagle). However, what Nicklaus categorized as "less than pristine" shotmaking just as often put Woods in a recovery mode. On Sunday, in the face of nearly flawless tee-to-green play by Singh, Woods became a short-game wizard, getting up and down from difficult positions on the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th and 7th holes. After hitting a sand wedge approach over the green at the devilish 360-yard 14th, he flubbed a flop shot from high rough five yards off the green, the ball traveling less than two yards before sinking back into the grass. No sooner had Nicklaus informed the television audience that Woods was staring squarely at a 6 and the loss of his one-stroke lead than Woods hit a chip shot that trickled some 20 feet before falling into the hole.
Although Woods accepts that his short game will always be overlooked, he works hard on it because, he says, "it's a factor that will demoralize most opponents." Certainly Singh was singed. "What happened at 14 was the hardest thing to accept," said Singh, who made bogey there and fell two shots behind. "What the hell can you do? Tiger has skill and courage."
Woods knew he was getting to Singh on the back nine on Sunday. "Yesterday Veej kept saying, 'Great shot, bro' and 'Way to go,' " said Woods of his escape acts in the third round. "Today the volume was turned down a bit."
Woods is intent on doing the same to his critics. While his play at the Memorial was further evidence that his long game isn't as solid as Duval's, the manner in which he won bolstered Woods's reputation as a close-the-deal competitor. He has led Tour events after 54 holes on seven occasions and has won six.
Woods came to Ohio buoyed by a wire-to-wire victory at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Heidelberg, Germany, two weeks earlier. His contentment with how well he hit the ball in Germany was reflected in his candid account of how swing changes he had made with coach Butch Harmon in September 1997 had caused some short-term pain in the interests of long-term gain. He says he never doubted the wisdom of the changes, which essentially gave a more rounded shape to the beginning of his downswing, "because when I did it right, god, it felt good. It was just a perfect shot." Woods believes that a chapter in his evolution has been closed and that he has emerged with more control, a greater variety of shots and "bad shots that are less bad." Just as important, Woods's play at Muirfield Village supported his claim that returning to the less technical approach to putting of his amateur days has freed him on the greens. Statistics say as much. Last year Woods ranked 147th on the Tour in putting. This season he's 25th.
Mark O'Meara and Lee Janzen, Woods's regular practice partners back home in Orlando, have noticed a difference in his game. "Tiger is definitely putting better by concentrating on feel and being much more natural," says O'Meara. "That opens up everything for him." Janzen's read is more esoteric. "I always saw an attack style in his walk, but I see a more relaxed walk now," he says. "I've seen this relaxed confidence coming on, which could be trouble for the rest of us."