The greatest amateur of all time in golf? Woods makes his case with 3rd title in row

August 26, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

CORNELIUS, ORE. KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — CORNELIUS, Ore. -- In a comeback as dramatic as any in the annals of golf, from a hole as deep as anyone ever has escaped, Tiger Woods, 20, roared into history yesterday.

He won an unprecedented third consecutive U.S. Amateur in a fashion befitting the lore, by refusing to yield, by fighting his way back from five holes down to a victory over Steve Scott on the 38th hole at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

As Woods putted out for a par and the victory on the second extra hole, his putter fell from his hands and he raised his arms over his head. The gesture was born of relief, of satisfaction, of near disbelief. His mother, Kultida, and his father, Earl, embraced him simultaneously, their shoulders shaking with sobs.

"This is by far the best," Woods said. "By far. Thirty-eight holes, the comeback, it's just an unbelievable feeling for me."

It is a feeling that certainly has some competition. Three years ago, Woods became the first black man to win the U.S. Amateur. Before that, he was the first player to win three U.S. Junior Amateurs and the first player to win both the Amateur and the Junior. Now he is the first to win three straight Amateur championships.

Move over, Bob Jones. Woods' record of 18 straight match victories in the Amateur moves him to 20-2, a better winning percentage than Jones' career record of 43-8. Woods has moved into contention as perhaps the greatest amateur golfer of all time.

Asked moments later whether his accomplishment would affect his decision to remain an amateur for now or turn professional, Woods laughed.

"I don't know," he said, "I just know one thing: I'm going to celebrate tonight."

Pressed again later, Woods was vague.

"I have to think about it," he said. "I'll know better next week. It's all so numbing right now."

On that score, no argument will come from Scott, who shot the equivalent of a round of 68 in the morning round, who birdied two of the last four holes to put Woods in a 5-down hole, who had Woods 2-down with three holes to play.

"Against Tiger Woods, no lead is safe," said Scott, a University of Florida sophomore from Coral Springs, Fla. "This was an unbelievable experience. It was probably the best amateur match ever. There was no loser. I never thought I'd get this far, especially against Tiger, and I had my shot. I just came up short."

But not by much. Scott had the upper hand for most of the day, from the third hole of the morning match until Woods finally squared the match with a stunning 30-foot birdie at the 35th hole.

When Woods walked quickly from the 18th green after the morning match, his head was down for the first time all week. He was looking for answers, searching for reasons.

"I was hot," he said. "I was awfully hot. I had nothing. I got off to a horrible start, and I knew I was going to have to really do something special in the afternoon to pull it out."

This was supposed to be his golf course, a layout with five par-5 holes, all of them reachable. Yet through the morning round with Scott -- during which he was 0-4-1 on the par 5s -- he had won just seven of 25 par-5 holes.

His rhythm had been off all morning, too, the same sweet tempo that had brought him this far, that had him 23-under through 118 holes, suddenly gone awry, like "The Pastoral Symphony" erupting into reggae.

"Left, right, left, right," he muttered to himself on the 16th tee, shaking his head after pulling his tee shot into the left rough.

That is the worst sort of uncertainty for a golfer, when he isn't sure which direction the misses are heading.

Scott, in the meantime, knew exactly what he was about. He was at even-par for the six days of golf coming into yesterday morning, but he went out and shot 4-under par, and he did it quickly, unhesitatingly.

All week long, Woods' match-play opponents had been reciting the same refrain about how they had nothing to lose facing Woods. Scott was the first to play like it, birdieing the fourth and fifth holes, the 10th and 11th, and halving the 14th.

By the time he came to the 18th tee, he had Woods 4-down. He ripped his tee shot around the corner, smoked a 3-wood to within 50 yards of the green and put a sand wedge four feet from the hole. All of it was done with the sort of elan that everyone had come to expect from Woods, and when he birdied the hole, he appeared to be on the verge of the biggest upset in amateur golf history.

But Woods had other ideas. After working on some swing flaws with his coach, Butch Harmon, Woods went to the first tee feeling very different. He was back in sync, and he knew it.

"I felt very confident," he said, "because I've been there before. I knew what I had to do."

He had been there before. Two years ago at the TPC at Sawgrass, when he won his first U.S. Amateur by beating Trip Kuehne, he was 6-down after 13 holes; he was 4-down during the lunch break; he was 2-up when it was all over. Drawing on that, and on his uncanny ability to play his best when the most is on the line, Woods went to work.

He birdied the third hole, hitting it in from 3 1/2 feet. He birdied the fourth hole, covering the flag stick with a 9-iron from 148 yards. When Scott bogeyed the fifth hole, Woods was just 2-down and the sense of Woods' confidence growing was palpable. At the ninth hole, a 463-yard par 4 that he has played under par throughout the grueling week, Woods cut it to one up with a 12-footer.

Woods punched holes in the air, gritted his teeth and yelled.

Scott birdied the 10th, but Woods came back with an eagle at the 11th. Scott went back to 2-up with a 15-footer for birdie at the 14th. Woods missed his eight-footer for birdie at the 15th.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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