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Chapter 2: Horse for several courses

10 Min Read

Tiger Woods Chasing 82

Chapter 2: Horse for several courses

First pro wins at Torrey Pines, Muirfield Village, Bay Hill and Firestone establish Tiger’s favorite playgrounds on the PGA TOUR

    Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR

    If Tiger Woods’ meteoric entry onto the PGA TOUR landscape in 1996 and 1997 – six wins, raw power, titanic confidence – created a media sensation, what took place in 1998 was akin to what those in the financial markets would call “a correction.” There was just one win and not a whole lot of breathtaking highlights.

    Yes, you could sense snickers from jaded observers and even one respected golf publication asked in a headline: “What’s wrong with Tiger Woods?”

    The next two seasons of his career – arguably the most explosive and dominating – would answer that resoundingly. Not a thing is wrong, his game is near perfect – especially when given backdrops called Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, Muirfield Village, and Firestone Country Club, a collection of four courses that have produced 27 (thus far) of his TOUR wins.

    Win No. 8 – Feb. 14, 1999: Buick Invitational

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 Buick Invitational

    Billy Ray Brown was enthused: “I had one of the greatest days of head-to-head golf.”

    He was also honest: “But he was incredible. He’s like a machine.”

    Woods’ machine-like aura was saved for the weekend at Torrey Pines, which began with him tied for 36th, a whopping nine back. “My intention was to shoot 63 today,” he said late Saturday, after scorching the South Course in a record 62. So now, heading into Round 4 with the lead: “I like my chances, no doubt about it.”

    “It was Tiger’s tournament to lose,” Brown said. “I could free-wheel it; he’s the guy who had the pressure on him. And you see how he responded.”

    With an eagle at the par-5 18th to break a tie with Brown and win by two. A 65 of an exclamation-point 17-under weekend. Said Brown: “Just indicative of the kind of player he is.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger played the third and final round in 17-under, seven shots better than the next best player.

    Win No. 9 – June 6, 1999: Memorial Tournament

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 Memorial Tournament

    Five delicate recovery shots by Woods to save par were hard enough to believe. But the sixth – a pitch-in from a funky lie long of the par-4 14th to save par – was too much for tournament host Jack Nicklaus to comprehend. “I’ve never seen this way of playing before,” Nicklaus said, making no apologies for telling viewers from his seat in the TV booth that the best Woods could have hoped for was bogey.

    Woods smiled after his wild, 3-under 69 secured a two-stroke win over Vijay Singh. “I love to practice those shots,” he said.

    From Singh, no smiles, just a sliver of truth that didn’t matter. “I played better golf than Tiger did today,” he said. “And he won.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger played the front nine in 11-under for the week with 12 birdies, 23 pars and just one bogey.

    Win No. 10 – July 4, 1999: Motorola Western Open

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 Motorola Western Open

    Another 54-hole lead, another win. The formula, said Woods, is simple: “Everyone is looking at you and you get all the pressure in the world. You can go nothing but down.”

    From his runner-up position at Cog Hill, Mike Weir saw it differently. “How good is he? He’s great. I mean, he has shots in the bag that I don’t have.”

    Woods earned his 10th win in his 63rd PGA TOUR start and for some context, it put him in the sort of neighborhood that only a guy like Jack Nicklaus lives (he won his 10th tournament in his 58th start).

    By the Numbers: With the win, Tiger became the first player since 1934 to reach 10 wins before the age of 24.

    Win No. 11 – Aug. 15, 1999: PGA Championship

    Staring from the 13th tee at Medinah, Woods watched the cheeky 19-year-old Spaniard up ahead curl in a tricky birdie putt. A look was tossed back down from the putting surface. “I was telling him, if you want to win, you have to play well,” explained Sergio Garcia, just three months into his pro career.

    Woods said he knew what the look meant, then added about Garcia: “A nice kid.”

    Certainly, Garcia showed himself to be bold, playing a most improbable shot from beside a tree along the 16th fairway to salvage par and keep the pressure on Woods. No surprise, Woods sealed the deal, winning his second major by one.

    Again, a variety of shots produced head-shaking praise in a closing 72. For Paul Azinger, watching from home, it was how Woods got it hole-high in two at the par-5 14th, a 583-yard beast. “He was 270 yards and pulled a 2-iron,” said Azinger. “I almost fell off the couch.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger led the field in Par 5 Scoring, the first time he'd done so and won. He'd lead the stat in 34 of his 77 stroke play victories.

    Win No. 12 – Aug. 29, 1999: WGC-NEC Invitational

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 WGC - NEC Invitational

    This time, the 54-hole lead was a whopping five shots at Firestone and Woods needed ‘em all, because Phil Mickelson, who began seven back, came roaring home in 5-under 65. “I can tell you one thing,” Woods said after closing with 1-over 71, “I am not against playing with a big lead. I love it.”

    For the most part, the issue had been settled in Saturday’s third round, when Woods shot 62 alongside Nick Price, who conceded a sense of despair.

    “He has the ability to overpower a course ... and I can’t hold a candle to him,” Price said. “Sort of like a David and Goliath out there.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger led the field in Driving Distance (302 yards) and ranked T7 in Accuracy (73.2%). This was the first of four TOUR wins where Tiger ranked inside the top-10 for each.

    Win No. 13 – Oct. 24, 1999: National Car Rental Golf Classic at Disney

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 National Car Rental Golf Classic/Disney

    “He’s a shot better than the rest of the field. It’s a concern for the rest of us,” said Ernie Els, who got a taste of what would be a recurring them to his career – being second to Woods. It was bitter, but the South African put the truth out there for all to hear after his 71 wasn’t good enough to catch the 23-year-old phenom at Walt Disney World Resort.

    “Nobody can touch the guy right now,” added Els. “He has gone to another level where I don’t think the rest of us can really find right now.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger was 13/13 scrambling around the greens, marking the only stroke play win where he was perfect in the stat.

    Win No. 14 – Oct. 31, 1999: TOUR Championship

    Tiger Woods wins THE TOUR Championship 1999

    This show at Champions GC in Houston might the only tournament won by Woods that is notable for a reason other than his fist pumps and Sunday red. The death of Payne Stewart earlier in the week prompted many in the field to wear knickers. “That’s why we will always remember this tournament,” said Davis Love III.

    No one resembled Stewart more than Aussie Stuart Appleby. And no one put Woods’ four-stroke win and dominating season in perspective better than Appleby, too. “His Royal Eminence. It’s like boxing,” said Appleby. “He could knock you out with a light punch. And when he needs to, he can step it up and knock you clean out of the ring.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger beat Love III by four strokes, his first non-major win by four or more strokes.

    Win No. 15 – Nov. 7, 1999: WGC-American Express Championship

    Tiger Woods wins 1999 WGC-American Express Championship

    Accustomed to generating roars for brilliant shots, Woods ignited them when his third shot trickled into the water at the 71st hole. “It was disappointing to hear those sounds, but understandable,” he said.

    With a triple-bogey eight at the par-5 hole, Woods let Miguel Angel Jimenez tie for the lead and the home crowd at Valderrama could barely contain themselves. In fact, the Spanish Civil Guard held them back when at the first playoff hole Woods made birdie to win.

    “He’s on a mission,” said caddie Steve Williams, whose boss closed out the first eight-win season since Johnny Miller in 1974 and became the first player to crack $6 million in a season.

    It was Woods’ fourth win in a row, a 16-round stretch that translated into 48-under par, with 12 sub-par efforts and six scores of 66 or better.

    By the Numbers: Tiger averaged 275.8 yards off the tee, marking his shortest average in 15 WGC stroke-play wins.

    Win No. 16 – Jan. 9, 2000: Mercedes Championship

    Tiger Woods wins 2000 Mercedes Championships

    You do everything in your power to win – an eagle at the 72nd hole, a birdie at the first playoff hole – and yet you don’t win, and, well, you search for answers.

    “When you feel like you’re playing better than the guy and he still beats you, you’ve got to ask yourself a question here and there,” said Ernie Els. Woods had matched Els’ eagle at the 72nd hole at Kapalua, then converted a 10-foot birdie putt at the first extra hole to extend the playoff. At the second playoff hole, the par-4 first, a 35-foot birdie roll by Woods crushed Els’ spirits.

    “He just does the things he has to do. That’s confidence,” said Els. “Winning is a habit for him.”

    A fifth-straight win, dating back to the previous season? That is a habit.

    By the Numbers: Tiger's eagle on the 72nd hole was the second time he had made eagle at the last and gone on to win.

    Win No. 17 – Feb. 7, 2000: AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

    Tiger Woods wins 2000 Pebble Beach Pro-Am

    It was the first Monday in February in the last year of the 20th century when the Woods phenomenon officially entered another stratosphere. “He’s got five loaves and a fish. It’s a miracle a week,” said Hall of Famer Jack Burke Jr. from his home in Houston.

    Coming from seven strokes back with seven holes to play at Pebble Beach – as Woods did against Matt Gogel – is what elicited Burke’s Biblical reference. Gogel, who played his last eight holes in 4 over, while Woods played 12 through 18 in 5 under, had his own succinct way of explaining what happened.

    “I was amazed, to be quite honest. I will not be amazed anymore,” said Gogel.

    Unforgettable, the hole-out from 97 yards to eagle the 15th that made this comeback a reality. Woods concedes he got more than he bargained for. “Just trying to get it close (for birdie), and it happened to go in.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger's bogey-free-64 in the final round was his 2nd final round without making a bogey en route to a win.

    Win No. 18 – March 19, 2000: Bay Hill Invitational

    Tiger Woods wins 2000 Bay Hill Invitational

    “Remember when he used to grade himself? He’s about an A-minus every week, an A-plus some weeks. Mentally, right now, he’s got the advantage.”

    Davis Love III’s words came after he finished second, four behind Woods, who really didn’t do anything special. Unless, that is, you consider seizing the lead and protecting it effectively by playing the last 34 holes of the tournament bogey-free as something special.

    Mark O’Meara had another word for it: “The thing Tiger has is a gift.”

    By the Numbers: Tiger played the par-5 12th hole 5-under combined. The seventh time at that point in his career he had played a par 5 in 5-under for a week.

    Win No. 19 – May 28, 2000: Memorial Tournament

    Tiger Woods wins 2000 Memorial Tournament

    History might show that this is where the towels started to be tossed in.

    “If it wasn’t for Tiger, I’d be in good position,” said Ernie Els.

    “When you can outdistance your opponents by 30-40 yards and know exactly what you’re doing and where it is going to go,” added Jack Nicklaus, “(Others are) playing for second every week – unless he doesn’t play well.”

    Rounds of 63 Friday and 65 Saturday at Muirfield Village built an insurmountable lead as Woods coasted by five over Els, who had finished second to Woods a few months earlier at Kapalua.

    By the Numbers: Tiger was 10-under and held a one stroke lead through first two rounds. At the time that was the 11th TOUR event where he was 10-under or better through 36-holes (Converted 8 of 11 into victories (73%)).

    Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.

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