Golf: Woods confirms his world domination

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The Independent Online
WHILE THE magnitude of a seventh consecutive Order of Merit triumph by Colin Montgomerie is hard to comprehend, it is but a fraction of the gap that currently separates the world No 1, Tiger Woods, from the European No 1 and every other player.

If Montgomerie dominates in Europe, or more specifically in Britain where four of his six wins came, Woods now dominates wherever he goes. His victory in the AmEx World Championship on Sunday was his ninth of the year and made him the first player since Johnny Miller in 1974 to win eight official US PGA Tour events. He is also the first to win four consecutive US tour starts since Ben Hogan in 1953.

Since mid-May, Woods has failed to win only three of 11 tournaments. Miguel Angel Jimenez put up one of the bravest challenges on Sunday on a Valderrama course few know better under such tricky conditions. Jimenez, who had already won twice this season in his home state of Andalucia, bogeyed the 18th hole twice but if Woods was fortunate to win in a play- off, a triple-bogey eight at the notorious 17th was too harsh a penalty during one of the finest rounds ever compiled in such conditions.

The new season-ending World Championship event saw a battle between the two winners of the old tour finales on both sides of the Atlantic. Along with the majors, the three WGC events make seven occasions when the leading players are brought together. Woods won three of those seven events, was in the top seven in three others and 18th at the Masters.

In comparison, Montgomerie had only one top-10 finish and ranked between 11th and 33rd in the others. "I need to sort out my putting," the Scot said. "I've played enough with the top Americans to know I do not putt well enough. I don't hole out enough. I use too many grips and too many techniques on the course. I need to find one technique and stick to it and that's what I'll do over the winter. That's the area of my game I have to improve to be able to win in America and more consistently around the world."

A secure home life, a "fantastic self-belief" and good course management skills between himself and his caddie, Alastair McLean, are the reasons Montgomerie gave for his continued reign as European No 1. "Seve Ballesteros won six of these things and to surpass that is unbelievable," the 36-year- old said. "I have had to improve every year to keep winning and that's what means most to me. I'll be just as determined next year."

But Lee Westwood, who moved up from third in the last two years to second on the Order of Merit, will not be picking up the gauntlet. "It was nice to have a chance going into the final round of the last tournament but next year will be different," the 26-year-old said. In contrast to his earlier assertions that American was not the place for him, Westwood is rethinking his schedule.

"I'll probably play less in Europe and a little bit more in America. I feel it is more important to be No 1 in the world rankings than No 1 in Europe. Realistically, to achieve that, you have to play in America. Look at Tiger, he comes over for the Deutsche Bank and the AmEx and wins both."

Yet if anyone is to challenge Woods, Sergio Garcia must be the favourite. Still a teenager until January, El Nino only turned professional in April but finished third on the Order of Merit, won twice, was runner-up to Woods in the USPGA and became the youngest player to appear in the Ryder Cup. It has been a phenomenal entrance on to the golfing scene and yesterday it was confirmed Garcia has won the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award.

"This is great," said Garcia, only the second Spaniard to win the award after Jose Maria Olazabal in 1986. "You can only be a rookie once and I feel fortunate to have achieved so much in my first season. When I was young I really looked up to Jose Maria and it is great to see his name on the list along with others like [Nick] Faldo, [Sandy] Lyle and Montgomerie."

With such young and charismatic stars as Woods and Garcia, the game is entering the new millennium in good shape. It does so on the back of highly dramatic moments, such as David Duval shooting a 59 to win a tournament, Olazabal's emotional Masters victory, Jean Van de Velde's collapse and Paul Lawrie's surprise win in The Open. There is also mourning for the death of the US Open champion, Payne Stewart, in a plane crash last month.

As for Woods, when Olazabal said he is "playing like the angels," he did not mean his compatriots, the Miguels Jimenez and Martin. Woods started last week by saying he still had plenty of improvements to make "in all areas of my game". At the end of it, he added: "It was a great way to end the year. Hopefully next year I'll play the same type of golf and we'll see about the number of victories, but see if I can continue to improve."

Woods' next appearance is as the defending champion at this week's Johnnie Walker Classic in Taiwan, the opening event on the 2000 European Order of Merit. There will then, thankfully, be a rather longer break, until next January, than the official three day "off-season".