Just as he has at every level of golf—but not quite in the way that was expected—Tiger Woods has left the pack far behind. While all eyes were riveted on the impossible arcs of his drives, flop shots and endorsement deals, Woods was forging a less flamboyant but more reliable game with study and sweat. Which is precisely why his accomplishments in 1999 are more impressive than his lightning-bolt 12-stroke victory at Augusta in 1997. It turns out that Woods has the instincts of an old soul, which told him that while lightning bolts are ephemeral, his assiduously wrought new game would stand the test of time.
The latest manifestation of what golf's 23-year-old virtuoso likes to call "the fruits of my labor" was Sunday's American Express Championship at Valderrama Golf Club on the southern coast of Spain, where Woods overcame a near Van de Veldeian disaster to defeat Miguel Angel Jimenez on the first hole of sudden death. With the victory Woods put an exclamation point on one of the greatest years ever in the history of golf.
Exhibiting what he called the best ball control of his career on a tight, windswept course that largely negated his length off the tee, Woods exploded with four birdies and an eagle from the 9th through the 14th holes of the final round to take a three-stroke lead. But his short approach to the par-5 17th—a shot he described as a perfectly struck nine-iron with reduced backspin into a strong wind—landed 20 feet past the pin, then began a slow roll toward the front of the green and ended up in the water. Woods took a triple-bogey 8 that dropped him a stroke behind Jimenez.
However Woods, as champions often do, gathered himself to finish with a solid par and caught a break when Jimenez bogeyed the 18th. Then Woods made the most of his chance, stepping to the tee of the first playoff hole and launching a 344-yard three-wood down the fairway. The sight of that drive seemed to cause the Spaniard known as the Mechanic to throw a rod; his drive dived left under some cork trees. After Jimenez failed to save par with a chip from the fringe, Woods closed him out with a 12-foot birdie putt. "I'm sure he is as good as anyone has ever been," said Bernhard Langer, a man allergic to hype, who played with Woods in the second round.
Without even taking into account the $1 million first prize that raised Woods's official season earnings to $6,616,885 (some $900,000 more than Jack Nicklaus has earned in his PGA Tour career), the victory at Valderrama put him in some very good company. Woods became only the eleventh PGA Tour player to win eight tournaments in a season, and the first since Johnny Miller did so in 1974. It was also his fourth victory in as many starts, making him the first to accomplish that feat since Ben Hogan in '53.
Considering that Woods also won one major (the PGA Championship) and a European Tour event in Germany, was in contention at both the U.S. and British Opens, finished in the top 10 in 16 of his 21 events overall and never missed a cut, there can be no dispute he put together a run for the ages. While it may not approach the holy trinity of golf seasons—Byron Nelson's 18 victories (including 11 straight) in 1945, Bobby Jones's Grand Slam in '30 and Ben Hogan's Masters, U.S. and British Open victories in '53—it's arguably the best in the past 40 years, better than Arnold Palmer's eight victories (including the Masters and the U.S. Open) in '60, Nicklaus's seven (including the Masters and the U.S. Open) in '72 and Johnny Miller's eight (no majors) in '74.
Nelson, reached at home outside Fort Worth on Sunday, believes that Woods's is the best eight-victory season ever—including the ones by Sam Snead and himself—because, he says, "the competition is so much keener now." Nicklaus ranks Woods's year as superior to any of his own because "today's players are better, there are more of them, and he has beaten the best of the best time after time."
Miller sounds a note of mild dissent by pointing out that the players he believes have the talent to challenge Woods—Ernie Els, Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson—had just one PGA Tour victory among them in '99, while David Duval, who was the top-ranked player earlier in the year, was strangely ineffective in the second half and didn't play at Valderrama. On the other hand Miller concedes that their struggles and Woods's success may not be unrelated. "Among the young bucks Woods has the presence that makes the others sense that he is the most dominant buck," Miller says. "Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson all had that quality, and it's absolutely vital. It's a feeling that's hard to define, but the other players know deep down when somebody else is better."
Six months ago Duval appeared to be the dominant buck, but while he was completing a run of 11 wins in 34 events with his victory in the BellSouth Classic in April, Woods was patiently waiting for the glue to harden on the swing changes he had begun working on soon after winning the Masters two years earlier. Woods watched videotape of his win at Augusta and saw that his swing was reliant on timing more than on sound biomechanics. He decided that to hit a variety of shots under pressure, he would need a swing that minimized the instinctive adjustments of his wrists and hands in the downswing.
That Woods asked coach Butch Harmon to help him change his swing only weeks after the most commanding performance in a major championship this century—and knowing that it would take a year or more for his rebuilt swing to become natural—speaks volumes for his long-term commitment to peak performance. When Woods shot 61 in the first round of the Byron Nelson Classic in May, he knew he had turned the corner. After that event, in which he tied for seventh, he embarked on his current run of eight victories in 11 starts.