Remember in The Natural when Roy Hobbs broke Wonderboy, his trusty bat? Same thing happened to Tiger Woods last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Playing the 16th hole at Poppy Hills on Friday, which was a continuation of a first round that had been delayed, inevitably, by high winds and heavy rain, Woods loosed one of his vortex-inducing swings and then watched in horror as the head of his driver flew down the fairway, leaving him with nothing but a shaft in his hands and a hole in his heart. Understand, this was no mere golf club. This was the magic wand Woods had used to bash his way to five consecutive victories spanning two millennia. "It's a weird feeling," a subdued Woods said of the incident. Imagine how the ball felt. It still traveled 275 yards. With typical single-mindedness Woods went on to birdie the 16th and shoot a 68, but the breaking of this particular driver, which he had been swinging since 1998, seemed potently symbolic. Woods blamed the beheading on bad epoxy, and for most of the Pro-Am it looked as if the glue that had held together his remarkable win streak—superior ball-striking, clutch putting and outrageous good fortune—was finally going to fail as well.
Until, of course, Woods hit what may be, given the circumstances, the best back-to-back approach shots ever seen on the PGA Tour. Tiger's legend needs no burnishing, but what he did on the 15th and 16th holes at Pebble Beach on Monday afternoon will not soon be forgotten. The first approach, from 97 yards out on 15, landed three feet to the right of the hole and rolled straight in for an eagle 2. The next, from 114 yards on the par-4 16th, hit a foot closer to the pin but missed the cup by an inch as it rolled past. Perhaps Woods had misread the break.
When Woods tapped in for birdie, he had moved to within a stroke of tournament leader Matt Gogel. Gogel, playing three groups behind Woods, had led Tiger by seven at the turn, but a bogey at 15, the 29-year-old rookie's third in five holes, dropped him into a tie. When Woods added another birdie on 18—putting him four under over the final four holes and in at 64—Gogel was a goner, and Byron Nelson's DiMaggioesque streak of 11 consecutive victories, accomplished in 1945, was once again in play. "I was amazed," Gogel said of Woods's performance. "I will never be amazed again."
It was hardly the outcome that had seemed likely when Woods broke his driver. Wielding a backup during last Saturday's second round at Spyglass Hill, Woods hit only seven of 14 fairways and shot a 73 to fall eight strokes behind the midway leader, Vijay Singh.
Though Woods was clearly fighting his swing, he was really undone by Pebble's distinctive brand of giggle golf. Celebrities yukking it up for the cameras is barely tolerable even when the hackers are likable, but this year all the old faves were missing. Jack Lemmon was sidelined by an undisclosed surgery, and Michael Douglas was tending to his pregnant fianc�e, Catherine Zeta-Jones, but the most damaging absence was mat of Bill Murray, who took his show on the road, to last month's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. In his place we were given Ray Romano, a man whose next funny joke will be his first. Romano spent stultifying amounts of time mugging for the cameras (surely it's just a coincidence that his sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond, is on CBS, the network that gave him so much face time) and then pretended not to enjoy all the attention, saying, "I don't want to be Bill Murray—that's too much pressure." Don't worry, Ray. We know Bill Murray. Bill Murray is a friend of ours. You, sir, are no Bill Murray.
Romano would've been simply an irritating footnote were he not playing in the group in front of Woods throughout the first three rounds. The soul-sucking effects of Romano's glacial pace were especially evident at Spyglass, where an exhausted and irritated Woods came apart over the final holes. Woods played Spy's brutal back nine first and was a solid one under, but he was forced to wait so long on the 5th hole that he passed the time by repeatedly bouncing a ball on the face of his sand wedge, the move he made famous in his celebrated Nike commercial. When it was finally time to resume the real golf, Woods bogeyed the 6th hole from the rough and then failed to make birdie on the 7th, a cupcake of a par-5. On the 8th, Woods three-putted from five feet, and after clipping a tree with his approach at the 9th, he had to get up and down from 128 yards for a par. "I didn't hit it very well," Woods said. "I didn't putt well, I didn't chip well, and it took six hours and 17 minutes to play. Other than that, it was a nice day."
Asked about all the shenanigans in front of him, Woods bowed his head, fell silent for a long while, then said, with utmost diplomacy, "Well, it's been interesting." What was left unsaid was, I'm chasing the ghost of Byron Nelson, and Ray freakin' Romano is holding me up on every shot!
Things got worse on Sunday when Woods—and Romano—played Pebble Beach with all the attendant TV cameras and stargazers. Woods birdied three of the first six holes, moving to within four strokes of the lead and reviving memories of the '97 Pro-Am, in which he scorched Pebble for a record weekend (63-64) to nearly steal the tournament from Mark O'Meara. But this time Woods was unable to capitalize on his early momentum, especially after he was forced to idle for 34 minutes because of a fog delay. He shot a 68, but that only put him into a five-way tie for eighth, five strokes behind the co-leaders, Gogel and Mark Brooks.
Wrong Way Ray and his Tour pro partner, poor Eric Booker, finally exited stage right on Monday, having missed the cut by a mile. Woods responded by birdieing three of the first seven holes to get to 10 under, but Gogel was hotter, playing Pebble's front nine in 31 to leave himself five strokes clear of the field. Gogel's turtle-neck got a little tight at the outset of the back nine, though, and he made consecutive bogeys on 11 and 12, moving Woods, who had birdied 12, to within four strokes. Then the miracles started.
The tournament was won and lost on the 15th, an innocuous, 397-yard par-4. First, Woods made his shocking eagle. Gogel, now swinging with one hand around his throat, hooked his tee shot into the wet rough, which was longer than in previous years as Pebble Beach begins to let down its hair in preparation for the 100th U.S. Open, in June. From there he made the critical bogey that left him at 14 under. Woods's closing birdie gave him his first lead of the day. Gogel, meanwhile, missed makable, albeit bumpy, birdie tries on the final three holes.