What could have been grand and telling drama, 18 holes of golf with the current and future king of the game battling back and forth across La Costa, came down to one startling moment Sunday, one shaft of pure light bursting through the rain clouds that covered the Mercedes Championships.
That light was provided by Tiger Woods, golf’s incandescent wunderkind, who turned a rainy, soggy one-hole playoff into an event worth remembering. Hitting second, after Tom Lehman’s tee shot ballooned in the wind and dived into the water hazard fronting the seventh green, the 21-year-old Woods lasered a 6-iron through the gloom and nearly into the hole.
The ball hit 1 foot from the cup and spun back 8 inches away for a tap-in birdie and Woods’ third victory in just nine PGA Tour starts.
Just like that. One tournament gone in 1997, one tournament won by Woods. “It’s a perfect start,” he said.
It certainly was a startling one. With rain soaking the grounds at La Costa Resort and Spa, rendering all but one hole of the golf course unplayable, PGA Tour officials decided to shorten the tournament to 54 holes and settle the tie between Lehman, the 1996 player of the year, and Woods, the 1996 rookie of the year, with sudden death.
After play had been suspended for 2 hours 45 minutes, the decision was made to pay the rest of the field and send the two players who were tied at 14 under par out to the tee at the seventh hole to settle things.
“I would have preferred to play them all,” Lehman said, “but what are you going to do?”
What Lehman did was make a bad pass at a bad time. The yardage he and his caddie Andy Martinez decided on was 181 yards to the hole. Interestingly, Woods and his caddie, Mike Cowan, decided on 186. Those 5 yards may or may not have made a difference, but Lehman’s 6-iron shot was well below his standards, plummeting into the lake 4 yards short of the bank.
“I was shocked,” Woods said. “Very shocked.”
So was Lehman. As he watched the ball’s flight, his expression said everything.
When that happened, whatever potential drama remained drained right out of the proceedings. All Woods needed to do was put the ball on the green and two-putt for par.
But, among the other astonishing attributes Tiger Woods is bringing to the game of golf, a sense of moment is very high on the list. He set up at the middle of the tee, ripped at his 6-iron shot and drew the ball very nearly into the hole. It was stunning.
“Gosh,” said Lehman, “what can you say about that? Tiger hit a great shot. You’ve got to take your hat off to a guy who, when the other guy is in the water, steps up and hits it stiff.”
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