On the 17th hole on Sunday, trailing Mickelson by one, Woods pushed his drive into the bunker and then hit slightly behind the ball with a nine-iron, producing the yank that nearly sent the ball into a lake. He gouged his next shot onto the green but couldn't drain the 40-footer for par to stay within striking distance. When he failed to ace the final hole, a 232-yard par-3, Mickelson was a winner. "I played poorly all week," Woods said. "I felt pressure on every shot because I didn't know where the ball was going. The left trees were in play, the right trees were in play, the road was in play."
Woods still pulled off a number of amazing shots. He made everyone's Thursday-night highlights with his recovery off pine needles at the base of a tree on the 5th hole. He hit a shot—adding a Tasmanian devil-like spinout on his follow-through for effect—that hooked like a Pedro Martinez curveball, finishing just short of the green. "A routine hook," Woods dead-panned. "That's why you practice those shots."
On Friday he blew a massive tee shot over the pines guarding the right corner of the 15th fairway, hit six-iron onto the green and sank a 20-footer for eagle. "If I tried to hit it over those pines, I'd be down in the bushes playing Ping-Pong off the trees," said Chris Perry, who was paired with Woods. "I knew he'd make that putt. It was pretty much, 'Pick it up, Tiger,' because that is what he thrives on."
The next day at the same hole, Woods hit a low two-iron off the tee that would've made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar duck but still went 260 yards. He had 235 yards to the green and stuck a four-iron shot in the greenside bermuda. Woods played a brilliant flop from the wiry stuff to two feet for a tap-in birdie.
He didn't enjoy enough holes like that one, though, and failed to become the first player to win 10 times in a year since Sam Snead won 11 tournaments in 1950. Woods did lower his scoring average to 68.06 and is a lock to break Byron Nelson's record of 68.33, set in 1945. "I'd like to do something a little better than that," said Woods, who hasn't had a score over par since the GTE Byron Nelson Classic last May. "You can probably figure it out." O.K., it's this: If Tiger shoots 267 (17 under) or better this week at Valderrama, the first two digits of his average will be, ahem, 67
Woods left East Lake in his dark brown Buick Regal—the rest of the field was assigned Mercedes courtesy cars. When Buick's new sport utility vehicle rolls off the assembly line next spring, word is that Woods gets the first one and fellow Buick endorser Ben Crenshaw the second.
Speaking of drive, Mickelson has a lot more behind that grin than you may think. He doesn't have a major among his 17 Tour titles, but the best year of his career has given him the confidence to at least talk about winning one. During Sunday's award ceremony on the 18th green, Mickelson told the crowd what East Lake's history meant to him. "To win a championship on Bobby Jones's home course is like being a part of his legacy," he said. "There's another home course of his about two hours away that I'd like to be a part of as well."
He meant Augusta National, home of the Masters. The gauntlet has been dropped. We have a challenger. Suddenly, April doesn't seem so far away.