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Loss of Payne eclipses Tiger's back-to-back pleasure

Alex Dimond September 13, 2012
Tiger Woods was untouchable at the end of 1999 © Getty Images
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Last week, Rory McIlroy became the first player since Tiger Woods to win back-to-back events on the PGA Tour - as the 23-year-old held his nerve to win the BMW Championship at Crooked Stick.

Woods has gone back-to-back many times in his illustrious career (the last coming in 2009) but the first came 13 years ago, as Woods, also 23, followed up victory at the Disney Classic with a dominant win at the Tour Championship to cap off one of the finest seasons in living memory...

At the tail end of 1999, Tiger Woods was putting the finishing touches to one of the greatest professional seasons golf had ever seen. It had been a breakthrough campaign, one that left no-one in any doubt that they were witnessing a future great of the game taking complete hold of the sport.

In 1996, as he left amateur status behind (as he said in the sponsor-orchestrated press conference to announce that fact: "Hello, world"), Woods joined the PGA Tour late in the year and then won twice in seven events to secure his card for the next season, confirming his status as something of a wunderkind. In 1997 he won four times - including a transcendent victory at The Masters that pretty much changed the face of golf overnight.

If music has that 'difficult second album', however, then perhaps golf has that 'testing third season'. Woods won just once in 1998, the BellSouth Classic, as perhaps his burgeoning fame began to have a slightly negative effect on his previously prolific golf game.

Whatever the case, by 1999 those growing pains had clearly been overcome. Now 23 and already one of Nike's most bankable stars (with Michael Jordan having just stepped away from the NBA for the second -but not final - time, the Swoosh needed a new talisman), Woods had already claimed four PGA Tour wins - and his second major, the US PGA Championship - by the time he rocked up at the Disney Classic at the end of October.

Perhaps understandably, to many the American seemed almost unbeatable.

He did little to disprove that theory at the Disney Resort course in Florida, which had also been the site of his second PGA Tour win back in 1996 (where he had edged out the immensely popular Payne Stewart). Playing some sterling golf over the final 18 holes, he did enough to beat another two-time major champion, Ernie Els, by a single stroke on an exciting Sunday of golf.

Fans there were witness to the peculiar convergence of two powerful forces - not only was Woods clearly a supremely gifted athlete, but he was one growing ever more in love with a sport he appeared to have been born to play.

The result of that rich alchemy was something approaching domination.

"When I was playing in junior golf, I thought I could never love this game as much as I did then," Woods said in his victory speech that weekend. "[But now] I love it more than ever. I love to play. I love to practice and I love to compete. I can honestly say I love it more now."

It should have been a time of glorious celebration for golf - this truly was the birth of a new era for a sport that had become increasingly niche during the early 90s, as no star dominated and parity took hold across the tours - but the celebrations would be short-lived.

Flying from the Florida event to Dallas for the Tour Championship on Monday, a tragic airplane crash had taken the life of Payne Stewart, who had claimed his maiden major title, the US Open, four months earlier.

As well-liked on tour for his engaging and open character as he was welcomed by galleries for his distinctive dress sense (sticking to the traditional attire of plus-fours long after fashion had deemed them uncool), the loss of Stewart hit golf hard.

There were tentative discussions about cancelling the Tour Championship in deference to Stewart's memory, but instead a memorial service was held in his honour. When the tournament got underway, many players paid homage by wearing Stewart's trademark plus-fours.

Others had different, personal tributes. Bob Estes, who counted Stewart as a close friend, began the tournament by hitting a 15-foot putt off the first tee - the same length Stewart had holed to win that elusive major at Pinehurst. "I just wanted to do a little something different to help us remember him," Estes explained. "Payne was so unique in everything he did."

Stuart Appleby was among many to pay tribute to Payne Stewart © Getty Images
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When the most obvious example of that uniqueness, those plus-fours, came out on Sunday, it was Australian Stuart Appleby - same shoe size, same waistline, same hair colour - who looked eerily similar.

"I can't be him, I can only look like him," Appleby noted afterwards. "That's as good as I can do."

There was still golf to be played, however - and while the mood surrounding the circuit had changed entirely in less than a week, Woods (who was one of four players in the 29-man field not to wear Stewart-inspired clothes, preferring to "handle things internally") was busy proving that the form book still read true.

At the conclusion of the first round he had reached two-under at Champions Golf Club, but it was a rocky start - quite literally, as it turned out. Woods struck a boulder while attempting to escape danger after a rare wayward tee-shot, a foolish mistake that left him with a trapped nerve - but left the rest of the field with a glimmer of hope.

A potentially horrendous round salvaged, he finished four shots shy of young Spaniard Sergio Garcia - who had challenged him most strongly at the US PGA a few months prior - but, with 27 holes being played on the opening day, the American quickly made inroads on that.

By the end of the second round (which was finished on Saturday, so players could attend Stewart's memorial service in Orlando on Friday), Garcia had dropped like a stone after an error-strewn 73. Woods, making a brisk recovery from his wrist injury, had plotted his way to a round of 67 - with only Jay Haas (whose son, Bill, would go on to win the tournament 12 years later to clinch the $10m FedEx Cup in a tournament whose riches was borne almost exclusively out of these sort of winning performances from Woods) and Mike Weir still ahead of him.

By the finish of the third round on Saturday evening only Weir was left, tied with Woods at 11-under after rounds of 69 and 68 respectively. This was where Tiger liked to be; already in his fledgling career, he was showing himself to be almost unbeatable when holding (or sharing) the 54-hole lead.

The rain then came in before Sunday's final round, a change of conditions that made the course long and soft. While this was anathema to the games of most of the field, to Woods it handed him an advantage he barely needed. Able to carry the ball further than anyone else and stop it almost dead in the fairways and on the greens, Woods fired a final round 69 that clinched a comfortable four-shot victory.

It was his biggest margin of success since the 12-shot win at Augusta in 1997 that had blown everyone's minds. It was his third win in his last three PGA Tour starts, and his seventh in 10 events around the world. It was the sort of run only golf's greats - Nicklaus, Nelson, Hogan, Jones - had previously been on.

It was dominance, pure and simple.

While all the players understandably had other things on their minds, you could not just ignore this sort of greatness. "His Royal Eminence," Appleby dubbed Woods, a nickname that wouldn't stick but was appropriate nonetheless. "It's like boxing. He could knock you out with a light punch. And when he needs to, he can step it up and knock you clean out of the ring."

Davis Love III closed his tournament with a round of 67, yet summed up perfectly the mindset many felt with Woods in the field. "I knew I could shoot a low number and still probably not win," Love noted wistfully. "I wasn't 100 per cent this week, but my 100 per cent still might not beat him."

What Woods had achieved was incredible, but understandably the mood afterwards was too sombre for it all to be registered and celebrated to the extent it deserved. A week earlier Woods had been proclaiming his growing love for golf, now (in the same situation oncemore) tiredness and sadness were all he could feel.

"We've all tried to come to grips with everything," Woods said in his second victory speech in seven days, as he raised his eyes towards the heavens. "It's been tough. I can honestly say I'm pretty drained. I'm thankful this week is over."

The week was over but, as golf was soon to find out, his stretch of utter domination was only just beginning.

What happened next?:
Woods (who also said he was "not sure how much better I can get" after his triumph in Dallas, won once more in 1999 (at the American Express Championship) and started 2000 in similar form, winning three events before the Masters had even got underway.

He blew his chance at Augusta but went on to win the remaining three majors of the year - paving the way for what would become known as the 'Tiger Slam' when he claimed the Green Jacket (and so held all four majors at the same time) in 2001.

Payne Stewart was on everyone's mind during Tiger Woods' victory speech © Getty Images
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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk