Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tiger's Back

Tiger Woods—whose career to date has featured 14 major championships, 71 PGA Tour victories in all, and one hugely embarrassing scandal—announced yesterday that he will return to competitive golf at the Masters on April 8. Woods has had a soft spot for Augusta National since winning his first major there, in spectacular fashion, in 1997. Later the same year, Woods won the Western Open before record crowds at Cog Hill. Woods's Western experience is described below. He was just a kid then, and (perhaps more than most of us) he is a lot older now.

     When Tiger Woods arrived at Cog Hill in Lemont for the 1997 Western Open, he was the biggest phenomenon not only in golf, but in all of sports as well. The 21-year-old prodigy was 10 weeks removed from his astonishing triumph in the Masters—in which he’d become the youngest champion and recorded the lowest score (270 for the 72 holes) in tournament history, while enjoying the widest margin of victory (12 strokes) in any major tournament since 1870.
     Tiger’s presence swelled attendance at the Western to 199,955, breaking the old tournament record by 30,000. There were 156 players in the field, but the spectators seemed intent on watching only one. “I feel for the guys who play in front of me and behind me,” said Woods. “Their concentration sometimes is interrupted. As I always tell people, you’ve got to understand that not only myself but other players are out here on tour, and we’re actually trying to make a living here.”
     On Thursday, July 3, Woods shot a five-under-par 67 to trail his playing partner Mark O’Meara by a stroke after one round. On Friday, Woods’s 72 and O’Meara’s 73 were the worst scores among the leaders; they ended the second round tied with four others for seventh place—four strokes behind Justin Leonard, who had carded a 64 to go nine under par for the tournament.
     O’Meara continued to slide on Saturday, shooting a 75 to drop out of contention. But Woods climbed back up the leader board. His 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th gave him 68 for the day and 207 for the tournament. It also triggered a deafening roar from the gallery. “Yeah, the people were going crazy,” Woods said. “It was kind of wild, especially since it’s late afternoon, and it’s kind of warm and they’ve been sipping.”
     Woods was now tied with Leonard and Loren Roberts for the lead at nine under par. A crowd of 49,462 turned out for the final round on Sunday, erasing the single-day attendance record that had been established Saturday.
     Sunday’s spectators saw just what they had come hoping to see—eventually. There was a touch of doubt early on: Woods shot even par for the first five holes, while Roberts carded two birdies to take the lead. On the sixth, a challenging 213-yard par three, Woods placed a four-iron within 12 feet of the cup and knocked it down for birdie. Roberts began to implode; he lost three strokes to Woods on the next four holes and gave up the lead for good.
     Woods bogeyed the par-four 10th hole to fall back into a tie with Leonard and Frank Nobilo. Thereafter he put on a clinic. On the par-three 12th, he sank a birdie putt from 25 feet out. On the 14th, another par three, his tee shot landed a mere foot from the cup, and he made birdie. Woods added another birdie on the par-five 15th for good measure. As he strode up the 18th fairway with victory securely in his grasp, hundreds of spectators broke through the ropes on either side and fell in behind him, their Pied Piper, and marched to the green en masse. “I really didn’t see them,” Woods claimed, “because I’m facing forward. I definitely heard them, but when I got up to the green, I was just looking at my putt.”
     After Woods putted out, he hurled his ball into the gallery. His 34 on the front nine and 34 on the back gave him 68 and a four-day total of 275 (13 under par). Leonard managed a 72 to finish tied for third. Nobilo shot 70 to end up second, three strokes behind Woods.
     Woods’s win was his sixth in less than 11 months since his graduation from the amateur ranks. He ended 1997 as the first golfer ever to earn more than $2 million in a single year. There was no telling how many more victories or dollars lay before him. “If I play my normal game,” he said, in a monumental understatement, “I should be able to win out here on tour.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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