It took those startling runs to awaken the reserved Akron fans. As Woods and his caddie, Steve Williams, walked down the 1st fairway on Thursday, Woods remarked that the galleries were unusually quiet, a far cry from the whooping, hollering Kentuckians at Valhalla. "It was nice, it really was, without anyone screaming and yelling," Woods would say. The last time he enjoyed a round so quiet? The British Open. "I played a practice round about 5:30 one morning, and no one was out there," Woods said. "That was really nice."
The crowds livened up on Friday when Woods got hot again. Fans chanted, "Fifty-nine! Fifty-nine!" on the back nine, but later, when asked about the people cheering for a record, Woods said, "What people?" He claimed he hadn't heard them and hadn't known his score. "To be honest," he said, "I had no clue how many under par I was. I knew I had a five-or six-shot lead. I just tried to increase that."
I have a tough time believing that—or many of the other things Woods did at Firestone, such as eagling the 2nd hole three days in a row. It's a short (497 yards) par-5, yes, but Woods hit a six-iron to within a foot the first day, an eight-iron to 10 feet on the second day and a six-iron to 15 feet on the third. He said he couldn't remember having done anything like that before.
His 64-61 start broke the Tour record for low opening 36 holes by a shot, and he went into the weekend with a chance to surpass Mike Souchak's record low score of 257, set in 1955. Woods shot 259, but he isn't interested in most statistics. "Just get the W and go home," he said. He took a nine-shot lead into the final round and played conservatively.
The big red numbers Woods put on the leader board didn't do much for the sagging morale of the field. Colin Mont-gomerie noticed when he finished his second round that Woods was 11 under through 24 holes. "Phenomenal," Mont-gomerie said. "I can only see that gap widening, and good luck to him."
Asked after the second round what the winning score might be, Woods said 30 under would be a safe number. He was joking, although he was already halfway to that number. Another questioner asked how long Woods's hot streak might last. Woods tried not to seem offended. "I don't feel like it's a streak," he said. "I'm just playing well."
Woods was bested only once all week. The winner? An insect. Woods said a wasp—or some kind of stinging bug—was lying in his line on the 15th green on Saturday and, rather than kill it, he picked it up to move it. Woods, not likely to be confused with Marlin Perkins, was stung on his left ring finger. He played the final three holes with the stinger still in his fingertip. "It hurt quite a bit," he said.
You watch Woods, you see something you've never seen. Two of his shots at Firestone were magical, and both occurred on the 18th hole. The first was on Saturday. An errant drive deposited his ball in a bad lie in the left rough, 182 yards from the pin, with a tree in the way. Woods grabbed a pitching wedge, opened the club face to hit the shot high and, to make it hook, spun around hard—so hard that his right leg rose off the ground in a contorted follow-through, as if he had kicked a 50-yard field goal. He reached the green and saved par. It wasn't merely a shot no other player would have tried, let alone pulled off; it was a shot no other player would have thought of. CBS announcer David Feherty told Woods on the air the next day that it was the best shot he had ever witnessed.
Woods's shot at 18 on Sunday was the best shot almost no one witnessed. Thanks to a three-hour storm delay, Woods and Hal Sutton finished in near darkness at 8:30 p.m. Woods was barely visible from the green, 168 yards away, when he struck his eight-iron approach shot. Long seconds passed before his ball appeared out of the dark sky as suddenly as if Scotty had beamed it down from the Starship Enterprise. It landed just past the flagstick and spun back to within two feet. The crowd roared. Some fans in the greenside bleachers stood and held burning lighters, a rock concert tradition, as a thundering ovation greeted the players. Asked later if that ranked among his most memorable shots, Woods answered, "I don't know, I couldn't see it. But I could hear it."
It has been a season of applause for Woods, who has won eight times for the second straight year. Sometimes the clapping comes from fellow players. Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, who beat Woods in this year's World Match Play final and shares instructor Butch Harmon with him, left a message on Woods's answering machine after Woods won the U.S. Open. "The better you play, the better it's making me look," Clarke said. "So keep on going."