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THE BRITISH OPEN/ Thursday-Sunday, Muirfield Course,
Scotland

Grand Jury Is Out

Woods will have to battle many elements in the third leg of his historic journey, but the once-unthinkable is now possible

July 14, 2002|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GULLANE, Scotland — Hello everyone and welcome to the show. History is at stake here as Tiger Woods takes on wily, windy, wonderful Muirfield, seeking to capture the elusive third leg of golf's Grand Slam. In the next week, you will see Tiger face up to challenges from the elements, his nerves, the best players in the game and endure the sternest test of his young career. So stay tuned. It's Tiger and the Slam.

Or something like that.

If the 131st British Open was just a television show instead of a major championship golf tournament, chances are the script would be kept pretty simple. You know how it goes. Tiger tees it up, Tiger shoots under par, Tiger tames Muirfield, Tiger holds up the Claret Jug, Tiger gets three-fourths of the way to the first Grand Slam of modern golf.

Only it simply won't be an easy thing for Woods, not at Muirfield, not with all the pressure on him. The road will be bumpy and full of holes, according to conventional wisdom ... and yet not everyone sees it that way.

"Winning majors, the Grand Slam, you have to be very, very special," Arnold Palmer said. "And Tiger is very capable. There would be no point in discussing this point about winning them all if we didn't think it possible.

"I think he is. There's no question about it. He's going to have to be very, very sharp, but I think he can do it."

Jack Nicklaus, whose hopes for a Grand Slam in 1972 ended when he was second to Lee Trevino at the British Open at Muirfield, says Woods has only one distinct edge.

"The only advantage he has is he's a better player than everybody else," Nicklaus said. "That's a pretty good advantage."

And then there's the fact that Woods won four majors in a row (the U.S. Open through the Masters) in 2000 and 2001, just not in a calendar year. Nicklaus says that's quibbling with the history books. So winning at Muirfield and then the PGA Championship in August might be right up Woods' alley, according to Nicklaus.

"I would think that it would be easier than what he did the first time," Nicklaus said. "He's already done it, so he knows.

"But you just don't walk on the first tee and say 'Guys, I'm here, where's the trophy?' You have to play 72 holes. You have to bring your 'A' game."

Earl Woods ran down an alphabet-sized list of trouble spots that await his son as he chases history at Muirfield. And every time he mentioned an item, he seemed to discard it just as quickly.

"One would likely say the weather, if it's bad, but Tiger absolutely loves that kind of weather," said the elder Woods.

"Personnel, meaning the media, but that wouldn't play either because he has the opportunity to get away from it.

"You would say food, but that's covered too.

"Time differential ... he'll have adjusted.

"Familiarity with links-type courses ... he actually loves them because they bring out the creativity in him.

"The competition ... the same, the competitors are the same.

"His health, he's fine."

So what are you saying, Earl?

"There is nothing," he said.

Nothing can stop Tiger? That's an overstatement, of course, but there can be no doubt that Woods is the heavy favorite to add another major title to his overflowing collection of trophy hardware. At 26, he has eight major championships and is clearly on a roll. He has won the last two majors, six of the last nine and seven of the last 11.

For Woods to win, or for anybody else, there are probably as many factors to consider as there are bunkers at Muirfield. And there are 148 of those. But because Woods is the only player in the field chasing down history in his Grand Slam pursuit, let's break his chances for winning into five sections.

The Pressure

Make no mistake about it, the pressure is real. And no matter who you are, it's not something you can avoid.

"I don't think there's anyone who plays the type of golf we're talking about who doesn't feel the pressure," Palmer said. "Whether it was Hogan or Nelson, Snead or anybody. Tiger is no different. He just handles it better. That's what we're looking at right now.

"For the most part, he's been able to shed that pressure and that's the reason why he's as good as he is. He goes to that reserve he has, his body and mind.

"What I'm saying is, a guy that knows where he's going and what he wants to do and builds up to that point, he's got to really have himself fixed for bad breaks, weather delays, whatever conditions might be. It's easy after you lose to say, 'Well, I got a bad break.' But that doesn't mean squat."

Nicklaus says Woods is facing pressure no different than what he experienced at the Masters or at the U.S. Open. Competing at the highest level in a major championship is simply pressure--or something like it, he said.

"It's what you thrive on," Nicklaus said. "I would call it more excitement than pressure. How do you control what's in front of you? And the excitement that's stirring within the golf world is neat, which is what it is right now."

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