It sounded as if the Japanese golf writer were comparing Tiger Woods to a funky flounder. "We have a very expensive fish called tai" Hiroshi Ishikawa of the Tokyo International News Service said last week. "Most people can't afford it. They have to eat cheaper fish, you understand? But after a couple of days, raw fish is...." Searching for the word, he grabbed a notebook and wrote kugattemo, meaning spoiled. "When tai is spoiled, people still want it more than cheap fish. This is like Tiger Woods. When not at his best, Tiger is still ichiban, Number 1."
Ishikawa made his right-on analysis at the EMC World Cup, which was played at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan's Shizuoka prefecture. Woods and his U.S. partner, David Duval, tied for second in the 24-team international shootout, but not before Woods performed one of his miracles-to-order on Sunday, chipping in for eagle on the 72nd hole to get the Americans into a four-way playoff. For Woods it was a mildly disappointing finish to an inconsistent year, and it left him with plenty to ponder as he prepares for 2002.
This season, after all, we constantly prodded Tiger's flesh with a finger while sniffing cautiously. He wasn't the golfer he was in 2000, the irresistible force who won three major championships, two of them by huge margins; who won more than $9 million on the PGA Tour; who dominated nearly all the statistical categories. This year he was Slumping Tiger in the winter and Hidden Dragon in the summer, and he arrived in Asia in early November with one Tour victory in five months, his lone top 10 finish in his last nine starts. He lost an 18-hole exhibition in Shenzhen, China, to a 29-year-old Taiwanese pro named Chen Yuan-chi, which is Chinese for Tiger who?
It was illuminating, then, to look at Woods's year-end totals. He won five PGA Tour events in 2001, two more man the next most prolific victor, David Toms. Woods also earned the most money ($5,687,777) and had the lowest stroke average (68.81) on Tour. He won his sixth major, the Masters, completing an all-four-majors sweep that was as grand as any Grand Slam, even if the media diminished it by calling it a Tiger Slam. Woods also won on the European tour (the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open), under floodlights (the Battle at Bighorn exhibition) and at the trophy shop (he's everybody's player of the year). Woods was a bit off in 2001, yes, but he was still ichiban.
This wasn't news to the thousands who climbed the hills and lined the fairways of the Taiheiyo Club's picturesque Gotemba course. Woods's World Cup play was a microcosm of his year—spells of brilliance marred by the occasional loose shot or ruinous lip-out. Even so, the Japanese galleries went "ooooh!" when he hit the ball far and "aaaah!" when he escaped from trouble. During Sunday's final round, played in the alternate-shot format, the Americans were five strokes behind the New Zealanders at the turn, but Woods sank birdie putts on the 16th and 17th holes, and then made the crowd at the par-5 18th delirious by bumping his short-side chip off a mound and watching resolutely as his ball rolled to the hole and disappeared. "Tiger just has to be Tiger," said Tokyo newspaperman Sadao Iwata. "That's enough."
In truth, though, Tiger wasn't Tiger in 2001, not according to PGA Tour statistics, anyway. He ranked 80th in sand saves, 145th in driving accuracy and 134th in putts per round—results that would send your average pro back to Q school. His scoring average rose more than a stroke over last year's, and his average-to-par per event went from 13.8 under to 9.6 under, a difference of more than four strokes.
His competition, meanwhile, got noticeably better in 2001. Average driving distance rose a record 6.2 yards on Tour, while the average winning score fell by more than half a stroke. In 2000 the top 25 players, excluding Woods, took 69-95 shots per round; this year they got around in 69.85. Most of these gains can be attributed to the switch by most Tour players to a solid-core ball such as the one Woods used to such advantage in 2000. The fact remains, though, that Woods was a stroke per round worse this year and his competition was better. Even the Japanese, in their moments of calm reflection, must squirm on their tatamis trying to understand how Woods can be ichiban overall despite being less than ichiban for months on end.
The most obvious explanation is inconsistency. Woods didn't have many good weeks this year, but when he had his A game, he was devastating. He won three straight tournaments in the spring, including the Players Championship and the Masters. He then won the Memorial a month later, by a whopping seven strokes.
A second explanation can be found in one of the Tour's newer statistical categories. Woods was No. 1 in scrambling, saving par from off the green 69.8% of the time. While it's clear how Woods's skills at self-rescue contributed to his low scoring average, it's less clear what made him the Tour's best scrambler. The ability to thread a seven-iron shot through a thicket of pines? The ability to hit a soft flop shot from thick greenside rough? "Putting," said Duval last Friday. "You can hit it this close to the hole from out of the bunker every time"—he held his hands a few feet apart, as if describing a fish—"but if you don't make the putt, you don't save par."
Yes, but Tiger's putting numbers were so ordinary in 2000.... Duval shrugged, then said, "The statistics are misleading." He was right. Woods's bump-and-run for eagle on Sunday owed as much to his powers of concentration as it did to his abilities with a wedge, and no one who has seen him pull off such shots before would look to data for enlightenment. Thomas Bj�rn, who paired with Soren Hansen for the Danish team that also tied for second at the World Cup, said, "Tiger is different from the rest of us. He does things on the last hole that only Nicklaus has done, and he seems to do it every time."