- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2000

In the final round of a golf tournament, Tiger Woods' opponents usually fold up like the Kingdome did over the weekend. When he and Davis Love went head to head March 19 at Bay Hill, Davis looked for most of the afternoon as if he were about to pass a kidney stone. (And he probably would have if it weren't a violation of Rule 32-2c.)

So it was encouraging yesterday to see Hal Sutton hold off Tiger over the final two holes to win the Players Championship. Coupled with Darren Clarke's victory over Woods for the World Match Play title, it might be enough to convince the other Tour players that Tiger indeed can be had. But only if you're playing totally out of your mind as Sutton was at Sawgrass.

While the rest of the field was scrambling just to shoot par, Sutton started out 69-69-69 to separate himself from everybody but Woods, who was just a stroke back. Then he withstood a nerve-jangling final round one that began Sunday and ended yesterday morning because of wet weather and turned back one last Tiger challenge with two of the solidest pars you'll ever see at 17 and 18.

Closing holes don't get any more demonic than 17 and 18 at Sawgrass. The former, the legendary Island Hole, looks like it was designed by Robinson Crusoe, and the latter played tougher than any par-4 on the tour last year. On Saturday, Sutton was cruising along with a four-shot lead when his ball went ker-plunk on 17. Hello, triple bogey. But yesterday he stepped up on the tee after Woods had eagled 16 to close within one and knocked a 9-iron smack in the middle of the green (while Tiger wound up in the rough).

The way Sutton played 18 was also right out of an instructional video: drive down the middle of the fairway (outdistancing Woods'), iron to 10 feet, two putts. Woods, on the other hand, hit his approach long and didn't give himself much of a chance for a birdie.

"Tiger Woods is not bigger than the game," Sutton reminded the media afterward. "You all do a damn good job of making him bigger than the game. That's what makes it tough."

Who, us?

Woods might not be bigger than the game, but sometimes it seems like he is. I mean, would NBC have provided live coverage of the final seven holes yesterday pre-empting some of its morning programming if Sutton had been dueling with, say, Tom Lehman? It will be interesting to see what kind of ratings the broadcast got. Tiger already has brought golf to prime time; maybe he'll find there's a Monday morning audience, too.

Even in defeat, Woods astounds. The $648,000 he picked up for finishing second in the Players pushes his earnings to almost $10 million over the past 15 months. To put this in perspective, Mark Calcavecchia, a fine golfer who has won a major, went over the $10 million mark earlier this month after 20 years of trying. At 24, Tiger is already the tour's all-time leading money winner (with just under $14.6 million). He also has won as many tour events as Greg Norman (18). So, yeah, it isn't hard to think of him as "bigger than the game" even though nobody is.

Or how about this stat: In six stroke-play tournaments this year, Woods is a cumulative 77-under par. (In '99, when he won eight times, he was 139 under for 20 tournaments.) The last time he finished over par in an event was last July in the British Open, and he was hardly alone; the entire field finished over par. That's why he's in contention week after week. He isn't playing himself out of contention by shooting a big number. (His worst round this year: a 73 in the AT&T; at Pebble Beach, a tournament he won.)

The Masters, which starts April 6, is shaping up rather nicely. Tiger is playing well. Sutton is enjoying a renaissance at 41. (Think Mark O'Meara '98.) Love and David Duval are overdue to win again. Tom Lehman already has banked more than $1 million this year. Phil Mickelson should be in better psychological shape after fending off Woods in the final round of the Buick Invitational. And among the foreigners, Colin Montgomerie and Nick Price both tied for third in the Players. They could be factors at Augusta, too.

But it will be Tiger's tournament to lose. Every tournament these days is Tiger's tournament to lose. He's doing things that haven't been seen on a golf course in 30 or 40 years. Five wins in a row? Three firsts and three seconds (two of them sole seconds) in seven events? Earnings of $9,848,316 since January '99? Impossible. Can't be done.

The man is mortal, though, as Sutton showed. But just barely.

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