Monday, December 25, 2006
Updated: December 26, 3:11 PM ET
Tiger named AP male athlete of year
Tiger Woods had an answer for everything.
When he missed the cut at the U.S. Open for the first time in a major -- his first tournament after his father died of cancer -- some questioned whether he could rekindle his desire to dominate. He never finished worse than second in stroke play the rest of the season.
Phil Mickelson emerged anew as a serious threat to Woods by winning his second straight major at The Masters and nearly making it three in a row at the U.S. Open. Woods responded by winning the next two majors.
And there remained skepticism about his latest swing change, put to rest by a year that ranked among Woods' best ever on the PGA Tour. He won eight times in 15 starts, six in a row to close out his season, two more majors to reach 12 for his career.
About the only thing he couldn't answer was how he was voted AP Male Athlete of the Year.
Woods won the award over San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, with tennis great Roger Federer a distant third. The 31-year-old Woods won for the fourth time in his career, tying the record set by Lance Armstrong, who won the last four years.
While pleased to hear he had won the award, Woods was perplexed it did not go to his good friend Federer, who continues to dominate tennis. Woods was in Federer's box at Flushing Meadows when the Swiss star captured the U.S. Open title.
"What he's done in tennis, I think, is far greater than what I've done in golf," Woods said. "He's lost what ... five matches in three years? That's pretty good."
Federer has actually lost a few more than that, but not many. His record in 2006 was an amazing 92-5, including 12 singles titles.
Woods received 260 points from sports editors around the country. Tomlinson, who has already set an NFL record of 31 touchdowns with one regular-season game left, was second with 230 points. Federer, who won three Grand Slam titles and lost in the final at the French Open, had 110 points.
Rounding out the top of the list were Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (40 points) and St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols and NL home run champion Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies (20 points each).
Fred Couples, the former Masters champion and all-around sports nut who attended Wimbledon this year, ran through the achievements of the top three and figured it would be a tough vote to cast.
"Roger Federer is pretty sporty," Couples said. "Tomlinson is going to pound the record by I don't know how many TDs. It's all great. You would think if you're Roger Federer and you didn't win it this year, you don't know what else you could possibly do. But Tiger ... it's not like he's not deserving. He's winning 55 percent of the tournaments he plays. He's probably ahead of Shaq's free-throw percentage."
Woods again made it look routine, winning at least eight PGA Tour events for the third time in his career and becoming the first player in history to capture multiple majors in consecutive seasons.
"Anytime you're over 50 percent winning in our sports, it's probably a good year," Woods said. "I know how hard it is. I know what it takes to get to that point. I hate to say it, but people in the media and fans don't understand how hard it is. Players do. The things players have said to me over the years, that means a lot."
What made this year different from others was the magnitude of his loss.
After winning his first two tournaments of the year, the Buick Invitational and the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, Woods' progress slowed as his father's health deteriorated. Earl Woods, the father, architect and driving force behind his son as a person and a player, died May 3.
During a celebration of his father's life in the lobby of the Tiger Woods Learning Center, Woods refused to sit as he listened to stories about his father, his solemn face yielding to an occasional grin whenever someone told a humorous anecdote. He said later he tends to bottle up his emotions, and they burst forth at the British Open.
Using driver only once on the crispy links of Royal Liverpool, Woods won by two shots to become the first player in 23 years with back-to-back wins at the British Open, and the lasting image of his season was Woods sobbing on the shoulder of his caddie, and then his wife, realizing it was the first golf victory he couldn't share with his father.
"At that moment, it just came pouring out," he said that day. "And of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, I just wish he would have seen it one more time."
To this day, Woods said he quickly turns off the tape of British Open highlights when he taps in his final putt.
The rest of the year was a blur of trophies. He overpowered the field at the Buick Open; putted his best at the PGA Championship; outlasted Stewart Cink in a playoff at the Bridgestone Invitational; made two eagles in the first seven holes on his way to a 63 to overcome a three-shot deficit against Vijay Singh at the Deutsche Bank Championship; and then won by eight shots at the American Express Championship.
On paper, the results looked familiar. In his heart, Woods said it was his toughest year, which he ultimately described as a loss because of his father's death.
For his peers, it left them at a loss for words.
"We're used to it," Davis Love III said. "People were trying to compare this year to 2000, but 2000 was surprising. Now it's like saying, 'Hey, there's a Ferrari. Oh, there's another Ferrari. There's another Ferrari.' It's an outstanding year, but it's not his only one. If I had a year like his, they would say, 'What an incredible year.' For him, it's just another brilliant year.
"It's hard for him when he wins four tournaments and no majors because people say, 'What in the world happened?' That's when you realize how good he is," Love said.