With a charging 19-year-old Spaniard pushing him to the limit at the PGA Championship, Tiger Woods weathered trouble on the final seven holes to hold off Sergio Garcia today and win the second major championship of his three-year pro career.
Golf's last major tournament of the 20th century identified an extraordinary 23-year-old champion and a fearless young runner-up who seemed destined to duel and perhaps dominate the game for the next 20 years.
Woods's one-shot victory at Medinah Country Club was not nearly as decisive as his breakthrough 12-shot winning margin and record 18-under-par total at the 1997 Masters at Augusta National. But it certainly was confirmation that Woods's decision over the last year to refine his game -- easing back on his powerful swing and making other adjustments in his play around the greens -- has him poised to meet the expectations that were heaped upon him after The Masters victory.
In his last seven tournaments on the PGA Tour, Woods has three victories and has not finished lower than seventh, with another victory in Germany on the European PGA Tour. Overall, he has won 14 times worldwide since October 1996 while propelling golf to new levels of popularity and earning millions in winnings and endorsements.
In his new rival, Woods faced an exuberant young golfer who has energized the game in Europe just as Woods has in the United States. Garcia gave U.S. fans a taste of his skill and joy for the game with a shot from the base of a tree at the 16th hole. After taking a big swipe at the ball, he sprinted down the fairway, then leaped into the air to see where the ball had landed. When he spotted it on the green, he put his hand on his heart as a sign of relief and went on to par the hole.
In the end, Woods's even-par 72 gave him an 11-under-par score of 277; Garcia shot 71 for a 10-under-par 278.
"Sergio played a wonderful round of golf," said Woods, who was greeted and embraced by Garcia as he walked off the 18th green to sign his scorecard. "He did what he needed to do, and he should be commended for not only the way he played but the way he conducted himself. . . . It was a tough day, but it's always fun to play with all the pressure on the line."
On this day, Woods, accustomed to huge crowds following him around the course, did not prove quite as popular as Garcia, known as "El Nino" in his native Spain. The fans lining the course to watch Garcia urged the teenager on with chants of "Ser-gi-o! Ser-gi-o!" as he produced several spectacular shots on the final holes.
Woods took a five-shot lead on the 11th hole, but made bogey on No. 12 and double bogey on No. 13 as Garcia sank an 18-foot birdie putt at the 13th.
With Woods watching from the 13th tee, Garcia pumped his fist and looked across the lake that separated him from the leader as if to challenge him. When Woods made his double bogey, his lead was down to one shot.
"I wanted him to know that I was still there and that he had to finish well to win," Garcia said. "But it wasn't [meant to be] a bad thing. I did it with good feelings, not hoping now make a triple bogey, or whatever. I was kind of telling him, if you want to win, you must play well."
But Woods managed to recover and mostly maintained his composure through one of the more daunting series of finishing holes, despite a bogey at the 16th.
When Garcia made bogey at the 15th hole, Woods had a little breathing room with a two-shot advantage. His eight-foot putt to save par at the 17th and a par putt at the last hole secured the silver Wanamaker Trophy and a check for $630,000, the largest single winner's check of his career.
At 23, Woods became the youngest player to win two of the four major championships -- which include The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship -- since Spaniard Seve Ballesteros in 1980.
The son of an Army officer who began teaching the game to his son as an infant, Woods has dominated the game at every level. He won three straight national junior titles, then three straight U.S. Amateur championships before turning pro late in the 1996 season.
But after going without another major championship victory through 1997 and 1998, Woods decided he needed more consistency in his game. Over the last two seasons, he has worked with Butch Harmon, his longtime teacher, on making subtle swing changes to improve his distance control and his play within 100 yards of the hole, still something of a problem.
Woods also has taken a different mental approach. At the British Open last month, for example, Woods hardly ever used his driver to make sure he avoided the rough lining the narrow fairways.
Only a few missed putts on the final nine holes prevented him from winning there; he finished tied for seventh. He also was contending for the victory at the U.S. Open in June, finishing tied for third. This year he has won $3.25 million, best on the PGA Tour.
"My game has improved so much," Woods said. "Every shot in my bag has gotten better, and that's because of maturity, more experience and more practice. In two, five, 10 years down the road, I hope I can say I'm a better player than I am now."