DULUTH, Ga. -- The journey was a struggle for Tiger Woods, but the outcome made it worthwhile.
Woods started yesterday's final round of the Bell South Classic with a 3-stroke lead over Jay Don Blake, but it became obvious early that Woods was not at his best. His approach shots, which were so accurate Saturday, were suddenly unpredictable. His putting was no longer razor-sharp. And with Woods shooting an even-par 72 yesterday, the door was open for someone to overtake him.
Yet, winners find a way. Woods made a spectacular par-saving pitch shot at No. 11. He got some breaks along the way. And when Blake missed a 20-foot putt for birdie at No. 18 that would have forced a sudden-death playoff, Woods walked away with )) his first victory on the PGA Tour in more than 10 months.
Finishing at 17-under-par 271 and earning a first-place check of $324,000, Woods won by one stroke over Blake before an enthusiastic gallery at the TPC at Sugarloaf.
The victory ended a drought on tour for Woods dating to the Motorola Western Open last July. Despite five previous top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year, and despite winning the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand in January, Woods was being questioned for not winning a PGA Tour event this year. That talk ended yesterday. And when Woods finally exhaled, he admitted a sense of relief.
"Shooting a 62 to win is not as satisfying as winning with not your best stuff," said Woods, who shot a third-round course-record 63 on Saturday. "The only reason why I won today is that I got some lucky breaks. I haven't been able to get them all year. In order to win, you to have something go your way."
Woods almost met disaster at the par-3, 189-yard No. 11. He overpowered an 8-iron off the tee, and the ball flew over the green, over a bunker and landed on a hill in deep grass about 20 yards behind the pin. The shot could have bounced off the slope into the lake on the left side.
The next shot was the turning point of the tournament's final day. Woods hit a spectacular pitch shot from his precarious position, sailing over the bunker, down onto the green and stopping 6 feet from the pin. Woods made the putt to save par.
Woods could not celebrate until the par-5, 576-yard No. 18 had tTC been played. Both Woods and Blake hit good tee shots, and Blake had 246 yards to carry over the water for his second shot.
Woods hit his approach shot about 30 feet from the pin. Blake hit a good approach shot, but it spun back and stopped about 20 feet away. Woods could have ended the suspense by making his next putt for birdie, but he missed just to the right. That gave Blake a chance, but his 20-footer that would have forced a playoff rolled past the hole to the right.
Woods par for the season
Comparing Tiger Woods' 1997 season to his 1998 season on the PGA Tour, through the BellSouth Classic. For the remainder of 1997, Woods had two more wins and won another $1,060,733.
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. Top .. .. .. .. .. Money .. ... Scoring
.. Events .. Wins .. 10s .. Money .. .. per event .. avg.
'97 .. 6 ... 2 .. .. 4 . .. $946,100 .. $157,683 ... 68.84
'98 .. 9 ... 1 .. .. 6 .. $1,003,586 .. $111,510 ... 69.57
Pub Date: 5/11/98