Waiting for a
table at a Boston-area restaurant last Labor Day weekend, Tour veterans Paul
Azinger and John Huston bumped into Steve Williams, the caddie for Tiger Woods,
who was about to win his fifth straight tournament, the Deutsche Bank
Championship. Azinger asked Williams what being on such a streak was like.
"He looked right at me," recalls Azinger, "and said, 'Zinger, I
know this is hard to believe, but the best is yet to come.' Afterward I looked
at Huston and said, 'Do you think he really believes the best is yet to come?
Because if it is, Tiger will break every record.'"
At Quail Hollow Club, Woods proved once again that he's next to impossible to beat when he's putting well. Tiger had looked all too human at the Masters after taking the lead early in the final round, then surrendering it and losing to Zach Johnson. And from tee to green, Woods seemed mortal again in Charlotte. Only his red-hot putter--Tiger made 12 putts of more than 10 feet and had 31 one-putt greens while shooting a 13-under 275--allowed him to outlast Stricker.
Then again, one hole can turn around a tournament. On Sunday that was the 532-yard par-5 7th. Woods blocked his drive onto a side slope in the rough barely a foot from a water hazard--not a very promising situation for the average golfer. The lie was good, though, so Woods took a chance and muscled a seven-iron shot onto the green, one of those I-can't-believe-he-just-did-that moments. For maximum dramatic effect, he then rolled in a 57-footer for eagle (BIG PLAY, G20) and vaulted to the top of the leader board. That was only the start. Woods made birdies at the next two holes and turned in 31 with a three-shot lead.
Normally, such a margin with only nine holes to play would be safer than a certificate of deposit. But strong, gusty winds made the back nine at Quail Hollow treacherous, especially the Green Mile, the three finishing holes that first rose up at the 2003 Wachovia when David Toms squandered all but two strokes of a six-shot lead with a quadruple-bogey 8 at 18. Woods ran into trouble before he even got there, missing the green way right at the par-3 13th and three-putting from 20 feet for a double bogey.
Up ahead, Stricker was birdieing the par-5 15th to gain a share of the lead, and the game was on again ... briefly. O.K., very briefly. Stricker made a mess of the next hole, taking a double bogey, while Woods birdied the 15th. That was really the difference. "I've won a few tournaments here and there, and it's been nice," Woods said, with customary and considerable understatement. "This one, considering the field and the course and the conditions, I'm ecstatic to have won."
Wachovia officials were equally thrilled. Having Tiger win your event is the ultimate validation and the perfect ending to what was the best show on Tour so far this year. The fun began with Wednesday's pro-am, in which Woods was paired with a friend, NBA great and North Carolina alum Michael Jordan. A huge gallery swarmed the two superstars. "It felt like a Sunday out there, not a Wednesday," said tournament director Kym Hougham. The best Michael-Tiger moment? Woods got a nice ovation when he was introduced on the 1st tee, but it was nothing compared with the roar that Tar Heels fans let out for Jordan. Woods isn't overshadowed very often, but he seemed to enjoy it.
But what really put the Wachovia over the top as a must-play, must-see event was last Saturday's shotmaking spectacular. Morning rains delayed the start by two hours but also softened the greens, meaning that it would rain birdies and eagles all afternoon and into the evening, as the round finished at almost 8 p.m.
Rory Sabbatini got things started by holing a wedge shot from the fairway for an eagle on the opening hole. Overnight co-leader Arron Oberholser, who tied for seventh, jarred his approach for eagle at the 3rd. Vijay Singh, playing in the final pairing with Woods, slammed his approach at the 12th into the cup on the fly, drawing a smile from the normally stoic Woods. "It's pretty cool when you see shots fly in the hole like that and not come out," he said.
By the end of the day the star-studded leader board was topped by Sabbatini, Woods, Oberholser, Singh and Stricker. The big crowds, big names and big shots made for an electric atmosphere and a spicy show. Factor in Quail Hollow's huge pines and hardwoods, and the atmosphere was eerily reminiscent of another spring tournament. "There was a sense of Augusta out there--a lot of roars," said Sabbatini.
Woods didn't win that one back in April, but the season is only half over. There are three more majors to be played, and the best is yet to come.