On Spain's Costa del Sol, Tiger Woods took his young golfing career to historic heights today, equaling the 46-year-old tournament winning streak of the legendary Ben Hogan.
Woods's playoff victory in the American Express Championship at Valderrama Golf Club was his fourth tournament triumph in a row, something that hasn't been done since Hogan in 1953. It was also Woods's eighth win this year, a feat last accomplished in 1974 by Johnny Miller. And the $1 million champion's check handed to Woods on the 18th green boosted his season earnings to a record $6.6 million, a total that surpassed the former record by more than $4 million.
"I've had a great season," Woods said, "and it's nice to end it this way on a tough, tough day. I hope I can play the same kind of golf next year. We'll see about the number of victories, and see if I can continue to improve."
The golfing prodigy who won't turn 24 until December has won 15 tournaments on the PGA Tour in less than four years as a professional and a total of $11.3 million in prize money, more than the combined career earnings of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Since May, Woods has been riding the wave of one of the hottest stretches ever in golf, with eight victories in his last 12 events, including one in Germany on the European tour.
Today's victory was symbolic of the resilience he has shown since arriving on the PGA Tour as history's most heralded rookie.
Beginning the final round one stroke out of the lead, he survived a disastrous triple bogey on the 17th hole and came back to par the final hole. When Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez bogeyed No. 18, Woods found himself in a playoff with a chance to equal two golfing milestones. Woods made a 12-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole in near darkness after Jimenez made another bogey.
"To be honest with you, I really played a great round of golf today," Woods said. "I felt like I hit a lot of good shots. At 17, I hit three great shots, just the way you'd want them, and I end up with an 8. But you can't get down or discouraged. You just keep playing and see what happens."
Having first swung a golf club at age 2, Woods was tutored in the game by his father, Earl, and won the U.S. Amateur three times by age 20. He left Stanford University in 1996 to turn pro, armed with endorsement contracts worth millions. After winning The Masters the following year with a record 18-under score and a 12-shot margin of victory, he drew countless new fans to golf, many of them minorities eager to watch an athlete of color dominate a traditionally white sport.
But soon after his Masters triumph, Woods began to feel the pressure of his rapid rise and, beginning in the summer of 1997, went nine months between tournament victories.
Along the way he discovered that he had to make changes in his swing in order to be successful over the course of his career. He also has become more consistent around the greens with his chipping and putting. Already one of the longest hitters in the game, Woods has become a complete player.
"What he's been able to do this year is amazing," said Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open champion, here this week as an ABC television commentator. "The scary thing is, he just keeps getting better."
Woods has won in each of the last three weeks, starting with the National Car Rental Classic at Disney in Orlando, the Southern California native's adopted home, followed by the Tour Championship in Houston and now here at Valderrama. He also was a major contributor to the U.S. victory over Europe in the Ryder Cup in September, won the PGA Championship in August for his second major title and is far and away the best player in the world by any measure.
He finished in the top 10 in two other major championships this year, tying for third in the U.S. Open and for seventh in the British Open. Entering this week's tournament, he led the tour with a 68.4 scoring average.
Today's victory came against an elite field of 62 golfers in the last of three events that make up the inaugural World Golf Championships. Woods played virtually flawless golf through the first 15 holes while the rest of the field was frustrated by winds that often gusted to 25-30 mph.
Woods shot 68, the lowest score of the day, to Jimenez's 69, and ended at 6-under 278.
Woods's triple bogey came at the 536-yard 17th, a hole that gave him trouble in the '97 Ryder Cup when he putted from the two-tiered green down into a pond guarding the front. Today, he hit what appeared to be three perfect shots. His drive was down the middle into the wind, forcing a layup shot short of the water. He had 100 yards to the hole, and used a 9-iron that landed on the top tier of the green, then started trickling back down toward the hole.
The ball gained momentum, dribbled past the pin and then headed down the closely shaved bank and into the water, sparking loud cheers from fans eager to see their countryman Jimenez win. The vociferous reaction was reminiscent of the reaction of U.S. fans at September's Ryder Cup in Brookline, Mass., which drew criticism from European golfers and media members.
"I was really appalled by the cheering" today, said Tom Lehman, Woods's final-round playing partner. "Either way you look at it, for us to get criticized for the Ryder Cup and then to have them cheer for missed putts or shots in the water. . . . It shows people just want their guy to win."
Inflation on Course
A look at select top money-winning seasons in professional golf history, with the year, player and a fact about that season:
YEAR PLAYER MONEY
1934 Paul Runyon $6,767
First season money records were kept in professional golf
1937 Harry Cooper $14,138
Golfer breaks through the $10,000 barrier for first time
1945 Byron Nelson $63,335
Won 18 times and winnings were paid in war bonds
1953 Lew Worsham $34,002
Ben Hogan won three major championships, but former Congressional Country Club pro took money title
1963 Arnold Palmer $128,230
Arnie leads his Army to seven victories, breaks $100,000 barrier
1972 Jack Nicklaus $320,542
Nicklaus wins three major titles, has best earnings year in career
1988 Curtis Strange $1,147,644
Strange wins U.S. Open, becomes first golfer past $1 million
1997 Tiger Woods $2,066,833
Woods wins Masters, breaks $2 million mark
1999 Tiger Woods $6,616,585
Wins eight tournaments, breaks earnings record by $4.1 million.
CAPTION: In Spain, Tiger Woods wins fourth straight title, equaling Ben Hogan's '53 mark, caps his season earnings at record $6.6 million.