Moments after putting the finishing touches on his third round in the Players Championship last Saturday, golf's foremost obsessive-compulsive set up shop on the practice green. Tiger Woods's 66 had been the low score of the day at the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., propelling him to within two strokes of leader Jerry Kelly, but shoddy work with his wedges had vexed Woods during an otherwise scintillating performance. So now he was bouncing one tricky little chip after another at various flagsticks. Clearly he was fixated on winning his first Players, the only important title missing from his r�sum�. Right, Tiger? Actually, he said, "I was getting ready for Augusta."
The practice paid off early. On the 2nd hole of the final round of the Players, Woods was just short of the green after his second shot on the 532-yard par-5, nearly 100 feet of contoured green from the hole. With a perfectly executed bump-and-run, he buried the chip for a tide-turning eagle that tied him for the lead. Woods completed the rain-delayed victory with a clutch nine holes on Monday morning, closing the books on a final-round 67 and a one-stroke win over Vijay Singh. In analyzing the key blow, Woods couldn't help but turn his thoughts to Augusta National yet again. "It's the same chip you would find there on number 11 if you bail out to the right and have to chip it across the green," he said.
So it goes for the Players Championship. Though it boasts the game's biggest purse ($6 million) and best field, the wannabe fifth major has always been the Tour's version of the Golden Globe Awards—a nice trophy but destined to be overshadowed by the more prestigious show that follows every spring. Still, with his victory Woods deserves a golden statuette for best performance in a leading role because he has brought a welcome clarity to the narrative of this screwy season. Forget all the murmuring about Woods's mythical slump, the avalanche of record scores, the techno-babble about new balls and the fact that there was snow in Tucson and sunshine at Pebble Beach. All is right in the golf world again. Counting his 72nd-hole Houdini act at the Bay Hill Invitational two weeks ago, Woods has won two straight tournaments and reclaimed his role as the overwhelming favorite heading into next week's Masters. "It's going to be fun," he said on Monday.
Woods can afford to be nonchalant because his game is as sharp as it's been since last summer. At the Players he hit his spots with precise iron play, drove well enough to survive a setup choked with U.S. Open-style rough and, most significant, rolled his rock beautifully on the brutally fast, sloping greens. (Only four players took fewer putts.) Woods pocketed $1.08 million, the biggest check of his career, but he left the Players with something even more valuable. "He has that aura about him again," said Bernhard Langer, who finished third.
If Woods's triumph at Bay Hill was equal parts luck and pluck, his win at the Players was the kind of indomitable performance that we haven't seen from him since the Canadian Open last September. For five days Woods stalked Sawgrass's Stadium Course like a man ready to begin the pursuit of history, his game face fixed in a permascowl. Among the keynote players of the early season, only Singh came close to matching Woods's intensity. The 38-year-old Fijian has four top four finishes in a row and has yet to shoot a round above par in 2001. Since committing late last year to a 45-inch-long "belly-button putter," as he calls it, Singh's inconsistent work on the greens has been superb. (He entered the Players ranked as the fifth-best putter on Tour.)
The news wasn't as good for Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson, whose torrid play earlier in the year had positioned them, for a time, as cofavorites for the Masters. Love, still trying to get his groove back after blowing 54-hole leads in consecutive starts in San Diego and L.A., began the first round with a duck hook into the woods and ended it with a double bogey. Last Friday he went out in 41 and, with a 76, missed the cut for the first time this season. Love was so shaken that he signed up for this week's BellSouth Classic to work out the kinks.
Similar lapses have been Mickelson's undoing at the majors, in which he is 0 for 34. His hyperaggressive style has brought him a bevy of Nortel Opens and the like but hasn't translated well at the majors or, for that matter, Sawgrass, where in eight previous appearances he had missed the cut four times. Greg Norman describes Sawgrass as "a head-case course—the more you push, the harder it is." Mickelson's first two rounds were prime examples. Two under through 16 on Thursday, he drowned balls on the two closing holes to stagger in with a 73. On Friday he birdied six of his first 12 holes but soiled his 68 with two late bogeys.
He had a chance to regain some mojo on Saturday when he drew a hotly anticipated pairing with Woods, who had dusted him in a rousing final-round duel at Bay Hill. Alas, Mickelson shot an uninspired 72, saying afterward, "I've had a difficult time the last few weeks concentrating throughout the round and being patient." And playing with Woods? "It's soooo groooovy," Mickelson said sarcastically, bugging out his eyes for effect. "No, it's enjoyable. I like playing with the best."
That's what Woods was on Saturday. He bookended his round with bogeys but in between played his most electric golf of the year. Among the many highlights were a towering eight-iron out of a fairway bunker to a foot for birdie at the 4th and a four-iron from 229 yards to within two feet for an eagle at 11. Woods put an exclamation point on the round at the par-3 17th, the scariest little hole in golf. From the back edge of the island green he holed an outrageous birdie putt, a two-tiered double breaker that was so long he lost track of the mileage. "I don't know, 50 feet?" Woods said of what was more like a 60-footer. "That's just luck when it rolls down there and falls in like that."
When you jar a big-breaking, 100-foot chip the next day, that's something other than luck. Woods took sole possession of the lead when he drained a Seeing Eye 10-footer on the 9th hole in near darkness. (The round had been interrupted for nearly three hours by rain and lightning.) He wasted no time asserting himself on Monday morning, drilling a seven-iron to six inches on his first hole, the par-4 10th. He clinched the win with a never-in-doubt eight-footer for par at the 17th.