Eye of the Tiger
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TERENCE SMITH: Golf phenomenon Tiger Woods pulled off a remarkable victory in the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am yesterday. Seven strokes down with seven holes to play, he came back to win by two strokes. It was his sixth consecutive victory on the PGA Tour, a feat last accomplished by the great Ben Hogan in 1948. Here are highlights of some of his final holes.
SPORTSCASTER: That was actually a pitching wedge if you can believe it. He is trying to knock it down.
SPORTSCASTER: I like that play and I like that shot. Go in! Oh! (Applause) Sounded a little bit heavy but it’s not.
SPORTSCASTER: Oh, no. He just about made two in a row. That ball hit right in front of the hole. I thought it was going in.
SPORTSCASTER: There you go. He has come back from as many as seven down today. (Applause)
TERENCE SMITH: With us now is writer and commentator John Feinstein. His latest book is “The Majors,” about the four major championships in professional golf.
TERENCE SMITH: John.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Hi, Terence.
TERENCE SMITH: Good to have you here. You know some of the prose was pretty purple today describing all this. The New York Times: “a comeback of epic proportions;” the Washington Post: “nothing less than brilliant.” Put this in proportion for us, this win and this record.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: The Post sounds like a theater review. It really was great theater, what he did yesterday and what he has done during this streak. When you do something in a sport that hasn’t been accomplished for 52 years, when you equal Ben Hogan, that is extraordinarily. Of course, what is more remarkable is that he is still five away from the all-time record that was set by Byron Nelson in 1945. Now, back in 1945 golf wasn’t as deep as it is today. There weren’t as many good players. I would say the best players — Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Jean Sarizan at the tail end of his career, and Sam Sneed — were as good as today’s best players but there weren’t at many good players who could beat you in a given week.
TERENCE SMITH: Given the depth of golf today and the competitiveness, is it conceivable that he could go, that he could break Ben Hogan’s record and go on to Byron Nelson?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, anything is conceivable right now with Tiger Woods the way he is playing. He that good and I think he has also got everybody else just a little bit intimidated. They see him in the rear view mirror and their hands start to shake a little bit. That’s what happened to Matt Gogel who was leaving the tournament yesterday trying to win his first event, and here comes Tiger Woods up on the outside. It’s the last thing in the world you want to see. He is playing this week in San Diego where he won last year.
TERENCE SMITH: Smoked the course.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: He shot 62 on Saturday. Right. Then he is playing in Los Angeles, where he is very comfortable; then he has a match play event. He loves match play man to man through seven rounds to victory. Then he goes to two Florida courses, if he gets to nine, that he doesn’t like quite as much. That may be where it gets tested, but think about this for a minute, Terence: If he ties the record at 11, he’ll go to the Masters looking to break the record. That will be the all-time media horde in the history of golf.
TERENCE SMITH: How is that for a stage set? Wouldn’t it be wonderful?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: It would be unbelievable.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, putting it in another comparison, Jack Nicklaus never won more than two straight tournaments. Arnold Palmer never won more than three. Even what he has done now is something extraordinary.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Oh, it is amazing. The other thing to think about is he just turned 24 in December. He has been on the tour a little more than three years. He has already won 17 times. Let me just throw a few names at you of players who haven’t won that many times. Fred Couples, Davis Love, Phil Nicholson, the late Payne Stewart — none of them have won 17 times on the tour. He has just turned 24. Golfers often don’t peak until they are in their 30′s, it’s not unreasonable to say that the 18 major championships that Nicklaus one which is the all time great number in golf, and perhaps in all of sports, even though Tiger right now only has two majors; it’s not unreasonable to think that that number may be unreachable. And no one, besides Nicklaus, by the way, has won more than 11.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, you know, he seems so extraordinary and so cool and composed and confident for a 24-year-old. How can that be?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, he is used to winning. He has been winning all his life. He was the youngest player to ever within the Junior Amateur title, then the youngest player ever to win the U.S. amateur title. And he won it three years in a row. No one else had done that. Then he wins the Masters when he is 21 — by 12 shots, just by the way. He expects to win. Now he hit a little lull in 1998 — only won one tournament that year — but I think that was good for him because he understood that he had to rework parts of his game. He matured as a person dealing with losses and disappointment, became better able to deal with the celebrity that comes with being Tiger Woods, and I think what people would look at a lost year in 1998 is one of the reasons why he is playing so well now.
TERENCE SMITH: What permitted him to turn it around, in your view?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Well, a couple of things: he understood that he had to change his swing lightly, and actually hit the ball less far so that he would have more control off the tee. He worked harder at his game, especially short iron game, which was his one real inconsistency. And, as I said, Tiger — the thing people miss about Tiger is he is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in sports, he’s very, very bright — not one of the smartest athletes I’ve met, one of the smartest people — and he figures things out. He figured out he needed to change agents because his agent was causing problems. He figured out he needed more independence from his father. He figured out that he needed to stop whining about the trappings of celebrity what he had $50 million in the bank. He has really grown up a lot away from the course. And I think has helped him tremendously on the course.
TERENCE SMITH: Is he the best ever?
JOHN FEINSTEIN: You can’t say that yet. He still only has two major titles. And greatness is judged in golf by major titles. And Jack Nicklaus, as I said, has the record at 18. But he, more than anybody, has the chance to break the record. And it’s amazing. Jack Nicklaus three years ago — when Tiger was still an amateur in 1996 — came in at a Masters press conference and said this kid will win more Masters than Arnold Palmer and I won combined, which is ten and people literally laughed at it, like, “Jack. You know, what have you been drinking today?” And now, I don’t think so many people are laughing.
TERENCE SMITH: They’re not. John Feinstein thanks so much.
JOHN FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Terence.