NANCY ARMOUR Associated Press
It was, even by Tiger Woods' standards, an exceptional year: eight PGA Tour victories, including a stretch of six in a row that took him from the British Open to the beginning of October.
What made that finish most remarkable, though, was the loss that preceded it. For anyone who's watched Woods dismantle opponents and golf courses alike and come away wondering if he was indeed human, the May death of his beloved father Earl was a heartbreaking reminder he is.
Woods' ability to channel his grief into an extraordinary run of six straight PGA Tour wins, including the British Open and the PGA Championship, was chosen as the sports story of the year in voting by members of The Associated Press.
"The hardest thing for me to do was play golf," Woods said recently. "Usually people go to work to get away from a loss like that."
This was the third time Woods has earned such honors. He was the story of the year in 2000, when he won three of the four majors, and in 1997, after he won his first Masters title.
Woods received 422 points in the voting. Vince Young leading Texas to the national title with a thrilling fourth-quarter rally over defending champion Southern California was second with 380 points, followed by the doping stories involving Barry Bonds (342 points) and Tour de France winner Floyd Landis (303 points).
The rest of the top 10 were: Barbaro winning the Kentucky Derby, then shattering his leg during the Preakness; the Steelers winning their first Super Bowl title since 1980; the Duke lacrosse scandal; Italy's World Cup victory and the head butt seen 'round the world; the Detroit Tigers' remarkable turnaround; and Andre Agassi retiring after the U.S. Open.
It was a rewarding year all around for golfers. Woods also was voted AP male athlete of the year while Lorena Ochoa picked up female athlete of the year honors. It's the first time since 1945 that golfers have swept the athlete awards, and the first one-sport sweep since Sheryl Swoopes and Michael Jordan in 1993.
Earl Woods was grooming his son to be a golfer before the boy could even walk and, had he handled things differently, their story could have been that of any other prodigy driven too far, too fast. But Earl Woods' tough lessons were accompanied by even more love, and he never pushed further than his son wanted to go. Instead of bitterness and resentment, Tiger Woods had only love, respect and admiration for his "Pops."
"Dad introduced me to the game of golf," Woods said. "He taught me a lot of life lessons on the golf course. So when I came back and started working on my fundamentals, who do you think I learned my fundamentals from? I learned them from my dad."
The elder Woods' death on May 3 wasn't a surprise. A habitual smoker who had heart bypass surgery in 1986, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1998 and was treated with radiation. The cancer returned in 2004 and spread throughout his body.
He was so ill last Christmas that Tiger Woods went several days without sleeping, trying to cram in as much time as he could with his father. That Earl Woods was father, mentor, coach, sounding board and buddy made his death all the more wrenching.
"My dad was my best friend and greatest role model," Woods said when his father died, "and I will miss him deeply."
Though Woods won his first two starts of the year, he wasn't at his best with his father always on his mind. As the father grew sicker, it showed in the son's game. He tied for 20th at Bay Hill, where he'd won four times, then tied for 29th at The Players Championship.
He went on to the Masters, but it was the first time Earl Woods didn't accompany him to Augusta National. Woods also believed it would be the last time his father would see him play in a major.
"That's something I still continue to think about, even to this day," Woods said. "It was my last round that my dad ever watched me play. Knowing that going into it, if I could have given him one last shot, some positive memories before he goes, it would have been huge."
But it wasn't meant to be. Without his trademark steely focus, he made one bad putt after another Sunday afternoon. He three-putted twice in the final eight holes, and missed two other eagle putts. He finished three shots behind Phil Mickelson.
"It was the only time I saw him try too hard," caddie Steve Williams later said.
Woods took the next nine weeks off, first to be with, then to bury his father. He ended the longest break of his career at the U.S. Open, but it was quickly evident he still wasn't himself.
For the first time in 10 years as a professional, he missed a cut at a major, shooting 76-76. It was only the fourth time he'd missed the cut at any tournament.
"It took me longer than I thought to cope with it," Woods said of his father's death. "I've never gone through anything like that."
His next outing was the Western Open, one of his favorite tournaments at a course perfectly suited for his game. But an opening-round 72 left him flirting with the cut line again.
He trudged down to the practice range as he always does. And somewhere during those three hours of hitting balls, the grief lifted and Woods reclaimed the gift his father had given him so long ago.
"I had about an hour where I really hit it that was fun," he said. "I had every shape shot, height, spin, whatever you wanted, I had it for about an hour. That's what you're always looking for. Then I just built upon that for the rest of the year."
He shot a 67 the next day, the first of 17 straight rounds under par. He wound up second at the Western, then won his next six starts.
There are hundreds of players - good ones, too - who don't win six tournaments in an entire career, let alone one season. To go 6-for-6, well, only Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan know what that's like.
But it wasn't simply the victories that piled up, it was how Woods got them. He used his driver once at the British, and rode his putter to the title at the PGA Championship. He gutted out a playoff victory at Firestone, and shot a 30 on the front nine of the final round at the Deutsche Bank Championship.
When the year ended, he led the tour in scoring average (68.11) and birdie average (4.65), and his greens in regulation average (74.15) was a full two percentage points ahead of second-place Jeff Grove. He was sixth in driving distance.
Since that first round at the Western, he's shot above par only four times in tour events. He's been no worse than second in stroke play since missing the cut at the U.S. Open.
It's the most dominant stretch golf has seen since 2000, when Woods won nine times - including three straight majors to round out his career Grand Slam at the ripe old age 24.
"It's mind boggling, it really is," Billy Andrade said. "Is he at that point he was in 2000? Yes. Is everybody playing for second? Well, we're not going to concede it, but he sure finishes the deal better than we do."
After Woods won at Hoylake, the emotions of the year finally spilled out. He threw both arms in the air on the 18th green and screamed, "Yes!" then buried his head in his caddie's shoulder and sobbed.
When he hugged his wife, it was with the desperation of a man searching for something - or someone - he knows he'll never find.
"If you take into account what happened off the golf course, it's my worst year," Woods said this fall. "People asked me ... 'How do you consider the year?' I consider it as a loss.
"In the grand scheme of things, golf doesn't even compare to losing a parent."