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Tiger Woods named Athelete of the Year

Tiger Woods wasn't even considered the country's best golfer halfway through 1999. By year's end, however, he had put together one of the sport's most dominant seasons in the 20th century. Woods won nine of his last 13 tournaments, including a major championship, and earned $7.6 million. Today, Woods was named The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in a close vote over Lance Armstrong.

"It's great to be selected, very humbling to be part of that," said Woods, who won the award for the second time in three years. "A lot of great athletes have won this award."

Woods received 29 first-place votes and 144 points from AP member newspapers and broadcast outlets. Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France, had 31 first-place votes and finished with 130 points.

Cy Young award winner Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox finished third with 45 points, followed by John Elway and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne.

Rounding out the top 10 were: Andre Agassi, Tim Duncan, Payne Stewart, Sammy Sosa, and quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner, who tied for 10th.

The U.S. women's World Cup soccer team was named the AP Female Athletes of the Year last week and also won for story of the year.

Woods became only the seventh man -- and second golfer -- to win AP Athlete of the Year twice since it began in 1931. The others were Don Budge, Byron Nelson, Sandy Koufax, Carl Lewis, Joe Montana and Michael Jordan.

Jordan is the only three-time winner. Woods, who turns 24 on Thursday, figures to have at least 20 more years to match or surpass Jordan. At this rate, the only thing capable of stopping him is a career-threatening injury or loss of desire.

"He's not even close to how good he can get," said Davis Love III after finishing second to Woods in The Tour Championship. "He's going to be good for a long, long time."

Woods won this award for what he did in a short period of time.

Heading into the PGA Championship, the final major of the year, David Duval was still No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

But Woods won at Medinah for his second major, then really separated himself from the rest of the sport.

He won five of his final six PGA Tour events of the year, including the final four for the best streak since Ben Hogan won four straight tour events in 1953. His eight PGA Tour victories were the most since Johnny Miller in 1974.

"I exceeded my own expectations," Woods said. "I thought I could possibly win seven times. It goes to show that hard work sometimes pays off."

That work started after his phenomenal season in 1997, when Woods became the youngest Masters champion in record fashion, won four other tournaments and was the AP Male Athlete of the Year.

Why change after that? Woods insisted there were too many flaws in his swing. He was either winning big or out of contention, and he sought a swing that would keep his name on the leaderboard every day, every week.

It all came together this spring after his post-Masters layoff, and the results were staggering. Including the World Cup of Golf, a two-man team event where Woods won the individual title and carried the U.S. to victory, he won nine of his final 13 events of the year. He finished lower than seventh just once.

"What I have a hard time believing is what a high level he has played at," Phil Mickelson said. "Normally, of all the guys in the field, a couple will get hot and go low. And it's been Tiger every single week."

Such dominance is rare in golf these days because of the tremendous depth on tour. Nick Price in 1995 had been the only player to win five times in a year this decade, and no one had won as many as six tour events since Tom Watson in 1980.

It all started on the practice range, the one place where Woods can find solitude from being perhaps the most recognizable star in sports since Jordan. Woods estimates he has hit 800 balls at a time, worked on his putting for up to four hours without a break.

Clearly, dominance does not come easily.

"He has an inward desire to be the best player the planet has ever seen," said Butch Harmon, Woods's swing coach the past seven years.

Jack Nicklaus, the player generally regarded as the best ever, didn't see much of Woods this year, although the results he read in the newspaper told him all he needed to know.

"He had a phenomenal year, and I think he's got phenomenal focus," Nicklaus said. "If he can keep that going for a long period of time, he'll break all my records -- and everyone else's."

Woods often says he goes to every tournament intent on winning. Over the last half of the year, he wasn't kidding.