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Hat Trick

The ensuing three-hole playoff. a new format the PGA of America has instituted for its championship beginning this year. seemed anticlimatic, especially after Woods rolled in a 20-footer on the first extra hole, the 16th, to take his first lead since the 2nd hole. Woods's finger-wagging celebration following his birdie may have been the most animated of his career. He held on to the lead with a scrappy par on 17. out of the rough, off a cart path and into a drainage area. At 18, Woods got up-and-down from the front bunker to seal the win.

Woods's and May's four-round totals of minus 18 broke the PGA Championship standard of minus 17 set by Steve Elkington and Colin Montgomerie in 1995, meaning Woods owns or co-owns the scoring record in all four majors. More mind-blowing: Were it not for one bad three-hole stretch in April, we could be enjoying a new Spike Lee movie, Summer of Slam. During the first round of the Masters, Woods double-bogeyed the 10th hole. his approach shot plugging in the greenside bunker. and then tripled the short, dangerous par-3 12th hole, when his eight-iron shot got caught up in the swirling breeze, landed on the bank short of the green and trickled into Rae's Creek. In the span of three holes he dropped five strokes to par, but with steady play the rest of the way, he finished fifth, six strokes behind winner Vijay Singh.

Woods's unprecedented play in the majors this year is what gives his season the nod over those of Jones, Nelson and Hogan. Jones's Grand Slam was vastly different from the modern Slam. Sure, he won the U.S. and British Opens, but he didn't have to face the era's top professionals in victories at the U.S. and British Amateurs. As for Nelson's storied year, he won only the one major that was played that year (the PGA), as the Masters and the U.S. and British Opens were all canceled because of World War II. The fact that Nelson was 4-F because of a blood condition meant that he faced thin fields throughout his record season. (For example, U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Hogan wasn't discharged until August 1945.) In his signature season Hogan won his three majors by a combined 15 strokes, or put another way, Woods's margin of victory at this year's U.S. Open.

Woods's mastery has extended far beyond the majors. He has seven victories this year, and with the $900,000 payday from the PGA, he has already broken his own single-season earnings record of 1999, with $6,692,821. He's also on his way to shattering one of the game's most hallowed records. In golf, the equivalent of Ted Williams's .406 batting average in '41 has been Sam Snead's season-scoring record of 69.23, set in 1950. Woods's scoring average is now 68.59. The last time Woods failed to break par was on May 11, in the first round of the, ahem, Byron Nelson Classic, a span of 27 rounds.

Woods has even overwhelmed the most discerning of critics. "I kept saying, 'I can't understand why we don't have anybody else playing that well,'" Jack Nicklaus said last week. "I am more understanding now. He's that much better."

Woods got an overdue audience with Nicklaus when they were paired for the first time in competition during the first two rounds at Valhalla, a pleasing bit of symmetry as the Olden Bear brought to a close a sentimental season of bidding adieu to each of the major championships, the tournaments that have defined his career. Nicklaus couldn't keep up with Woods, who wowed his idol with spectacular ball striking, hitting 16 greens in regulation on Thursday and averaging 329.5 yards on his drives. "He shot the easiest 66 today," Nicklaus said following Round 1. "It looked like a 60. Phenomenal control, phenomenal concentration, phenomenal putter."

At the U.S. Open, Woods didn't have a three-putt; at the British Open he didn't hit a single bunker. With both Pebble Beach and the Old Course playing hard and fast, his victories were models of precision and restraint. At Valhalla, with its generous fairways and receptive greens, Woods clubbed the par-5s (ranging in length from 535 to 597 yards) into submission, birdieing all four on Thursday by reaching the greens with a seven-iron, a seven-iron, a four-iron and a seven-iron. "My gosh, he hits the ball a long way," Nicklaus said, sounding like a man who had finally found religion.

On Friday, Woods continued the onslaught, birdieing three of the par-5s to anchor a 67. Nicklaus, coping with the death of his mother, Helen, two days earlier, would shoot 77-71 to miss another cut, but on the par-4 13th hole, Tiger and the Bear finally provided the symbolic moment that everyone had been craving. Both played nice approach shots into the hole's island green, and as they neared the narrow connecting bridge, each man slowed to a halt. Woods motioned with his hand: After you. Nicklaus returned the gesture: No, after you. Woods smiled and then crossed the bridge, in the lead, as always.

Saturday seemed ripe for Woods to turn on the afterburners. It had been hotter than the Gore daughters in the days leading up to the PGA, forcing the Valhalla grounds crew to soak the greens to keep the grass from withering. When a storm blew through in the wee hours of Friday morning, dumping more than three inches of rain, suddenly the fairways were soft and receptive, and the greens downright marshmallowy. Saturday also brought easier pin placements, and the birdies flew fast and furious. José María Olazábal went out early and rang up a scorching 63, tying 18 other players for the lowest score in major championship history.

Though his swing was out of sync early in the third round, Woods scraped around brilliantly, and at the 10th hole he was four under on the day and three shots clear of the field. But he had flown too high on borrowed wings. His shaky ball striking finally caught up with him at 12, where he took a stunning double bogey that trimmed his lead to one over his plucky playing partner, Scott Dunlap. Woods took another bogey at 15, pulling a six-iron 40 yards left into the cabbage. With a clutch two-putt birdie at 18 he regained sole possession of the lead, one ahead of May and Dunlap, who would fade on Sunday with a 75.

So the final round came, and Woods and May had the chance to renew acquaintances. They had grown up 20 minutes apart in Southern California, back in the days when Woods wasn't the only prodigy. Nearly every Sunday morning for six years, from the time Bob was 11, his parents would schlepp him clear across the Los Angeles basin, from their middle-class neighborhood in La Habra to the rarefied air of Bel-Air Country Club, where Bob had a standing 7 a.m. lesson with Bel-Air's legendary Eddie (Li'l Pro) Merrins. It's unusual for an outsider to be accorded such a welcome at Bel-Air, but Merrins saw something special in May, who would more than fulfill the promise. At 16 he played his way into the L.A. Open, becoming the youngest competitor in the tournament's history (a distinction Woods usurped by a few months, when he was 16). May so dominated the junior golf scene in Southern California that Woods, seven years his junior, says now, "I just wanted to hopefully one day win as many tournaments as he did."

Bob May, take heart. Yours are hardly the only records that Woods has smashed as he continues to overwhelm golf's notions of the impossible.

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