After Tiger Woods struck his third shot into the 17th green today at Valderrama, he put his head down and started walking toward the green. When he looked up, he was astonished to see his ball slowly rolling down from the top tier of a bi-level putting surface, then watched in horror as it picked up speed and didn't stop until it hopped into a pond.

The splash was accompanied by cheers from the gallery sitting on the hills around the green. They were pulling hard for their countryman, Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, playing two groups behind. If Woods was all wet, so much the better.

In the end, though, despite walking off that green with a triple-bogey 8 and falling two shots behind Jimenez, Woods ultimately prevailed here on a windy day off the southern coast of Spain.

About an hour later, in dimming daylight, Woods made a 12-foot birdie putt on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff at the 18th. Jimenez, who had won twice on home soil on the European tour this season, stumbled home with two bogeys in his last three holes of regulation, then made another with a wild drive off the tee on the playoff hole.

That was enough for Woods to capture the first American Express Championship with a final round of 68, the lowest score in the field, for a 72-hole total of 6-under 278. The victory was Woods's fourth straight, third in the last three weeks and eighth of the season overall, the most wins in a year since Johnny Miller also won eight in 1974.

Woods's fourth straight triumph also marked the first time a player had done that since Ben Hogan in 1953. It allowed him to collect a $1 million winner's check out of the $5 million purse in the last of three events in the first year of the World Golf Championships. It also came against an elite field that was blown and battered by winds that gusted at 25-30 mph.

Woods was so delighted by the victory, he insisted he was not all that upset with the crowd for its reaction at the 17th. It's the signature hole of this course that also was a major source of controversy in the 1997 Ryder Cup. Woods actually putted his ball off the green and into the pond during that event, when the slope to the water was even more severe than it was today.

"When they started cheering when my ball went in the water . . . that was unfortunate," Woods said. "And it's unfortunate they got on us [American fans] for the Ryder Cup [in September outside Boston] and the way we reacted. Unfortunately, they did the same thing.

"I think [today's reaction] had nothing to do with the Ryder Cup. I think it had to do with a person from their own country who is obviously playing well, and in a big event. He had a tremendous year in Spain, two wins and a second. Obviously, they wanted him to win. It was disappointing to hear the sounds, but understandable."

Nick Price, playing right behind Woods in the next-to-last group, was not as kind to the Spanish fans.

"When he missed the putt [a three-footer] and made the triple, they clapped, and that is not golf," Price said. "Something has to be done to stop it. I'm disappointed. Galleries have to give the home players and the visiting players equal respect. It was wrong in Boston, and it was wrong here."

Woods was doing almost everything right through his first 15 holes, and the sound he was hearing most often was appreciative applause for his spectacular work, especially on the first five holes of the back nine.

He played them in an astonishing 5 under, with a 22-foot birdie putt at the 10th, a chip-in eagle from 25 feet at the 547-yard 11th, an eight-footer for birdie at the 12th and a three-footer at the 14th that took him to 10 under for the tournament.

But Jimenez, spurred on by his boisterous galleries, managed to keep pace while everyone else in the field was falling back. He finished with a 69--278 and only one other player, third-place Dudley Hart, could get under par. He finished with a 70--283.

But a man known as "The Mechanic" on the European tour suddenly started leaking oil down the stretch, bogeying two of his last three holes in regulation.

On No. 18, his tee shot went down the left side but did not carry far enough for him to get around the bend for a clear shot to the green. He hit a low hook, but the ball stopped 10 yards short of the putting surface, and Jimenez then mangled a chip that rolled about 18 feet past the hole and into the fringe. He nearly sank his fourth shot, grazing the cup, and made a two-footer for bogey that forced the playoff.

On the playoff hole, the 18th, Woods teed off first and busted a 3-wood down the middle. Jimenez pulled his tee shot left between the cork trees and in the rough.

His next shot hit some leaves in the tree and ended up in the right bunker, about 15 yards from the flag. Woods had 104 yards to the hole for his second shot, and his 60-degree sand wedge left him 12 feet from the cup.

Jimenez needed to get up and down for par to stay alive, but his sand shot went into the fringe 15 feet past the hole. He then chipped to within a foot and holed out, and Woods needed only two putts for the victory.

Woods took one for his sixth birdie (plus an eagle), $1 million and the most successful season by one player in the last 25 years. He has won 15 times in 69 PGA Tour starts and more than $11.3 million. The $6.6 million this season broke last year's record of $2.59 million set by David Duval and is more than his idol, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer made combined during their regular tour careers.

"I can't say enough about the way Tiger played," said Tom Lehman, his playing partner today. "He just played flawless golf. Even at 17, he hit three tremendous shots, and still made 8. I thought he was great, just great."

CAREER MONEY LEADERS

The PGA Tour's all-time prize money leaders following yesterday's event at Valderrama Golf Club*:

Player Wins/Years/Money

1. Greg Norman 18/16/$12,507,322

2. Davis Love III 13/14/$12,487,462

3. Payne Stewart 11/19/$11,737,008

4. Nick Price 16/17/$11,386,236

5. Tiger Woods 15/3/$11,315,129

6. Fred Couples 14/19/$11,305,068

7. Mark O'Meara 16/19/$11,162,269

8. Tom Kite 19/27/$10,533,102

9. Scott Hoch 8/20/$10,308,995

10. David Duval 11/6/$10,047,947

*Jack Nicklaus has won $5,696,748 in his career; Arnold Palmer has won $1,861,857.

HOW DOES TIGER'S YEAR STACK UP?

Most victories in a calendar year

18 -- Byron Nelson (1945)

13 -- Ben Hogan (1946)

11 -- Sam Snead (1950)

10 -- Ben Hogan (1948)

9 -- Paul Runyan (1933)

8 -- Tiger Woods (1999)

8 -- Johnny Miller (1974)

8 -- Arnold Palmer (1960)

8 -- Byron Nelson (1944)

8 -- Sam Snead (1938)

8 -- Gene Sarazen (1930)

8 -- Horton Smith (1929)

Most consecutive victories

11 -- Byron Nelson (March 11 to Aug. 4, 1945)

6 -- Ben Hogan (June 12 to Aug. 22, 1948)

4 -- Tiger Woods (Aug. 29 to Nov. 7, 1999)

4 -- Ben Hogan (1953)

4 -- Jackie Burke Jr. (Feb. 14 to March 9, 1952)

4 -- Byron Nelson (1945 and 1946)

SOURCE: PGA Tour