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That Was 30 Years Ago, Tiger

Woods aims to be first since Nicklaus to take first two legs of Grand Slam

June 09, 2002|DOUG FERGUSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The number is still one of the most staggering in golf. Tiger Woods was 15 strokes better than everyone else in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the largest margin in 142 years of major championships.

Two years later, the gap between Woods and his peers seems as wide.

"Tiger is good, but the whole world isn't going to fall down forever," Jack Nicklaus said. "They'll figure it out. It's going to happen."

That brings up two questions heading into the 102nd U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park, where Woods will try to become the first player since Nicklaus in 1972 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam.

Who? And when?

The gap has closed at times. There have been seven majors played since Woods' historic victory at Pebble Beach, and he has only won four of them.

Retief Goosen won the U.S. Open last year and ended Woods' record run of four consecutive majors. David Duval, the only other player besides Woods to be ranked No. 1 the past four years, won his first major at the British Open. The other went to David Toms, whose victory at the PGA Championship kept Phil Mickelson zero-for-the-majors.

Now for the "bad" news.

Woods says his swing is starting to round into the kind of form he had in 2000, when he won nine PGA Tour events and three consecutive majors, setting a scoring in each of them.

"It's pretty close," he said. "Summer of 2000, I think my long iron game was just a touch more sharp than it is right now. But it's coming."

Colin Montgomerie got a close look at it in Germany, when he lost to Woods on the third playoff hole. They played the 18th hole at St. Leon-Rot four times--once in regulation, three times in the playoff--and Woods was never in trouble off the tee.

"The four two-irons he hit on the last hole were probably the most impressive four shots I have ever seen in golf," Montgomerie said. "They actually finished in the same space. Very, very impressive, indeed. If that's the standard that we have to attain, well, we all have a lot of work to do."

The fact Woods is the only repeat winner on the PGA Tour this year is a sign that no one else is particularly close to entering his domain.

The only threats have come from Els and Mickelson.

Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion whose game has been solid all season, held off a hard-charging Woods at Doral and won the next week against a strong European field in the Dubai Desert Classic.

Mickelson won his first tournament after a five-month break at the Bob Hope Classic, and his name has become a fixture on Sunday leaderboards. He even went so far as to question the mettle of his peers earlier this year.

"I haven't seen anybody step up to the plate and challenge Tiger the way I have," he said. "He's the best player in the game, and I am not going to back down from him. I see these other guys wilt, and it's just unbelievable to me that they haven't been able to play their best golf when he's in contention."

Nice speech, but Mickelson had his chance at the Masters.

Just about everyone did.

Woods entered the final round at Augusta chased by five of the next six players behind him in the world ranking. He never trailed. He was never challenged.

The gap grew.

"They were playing Tiger. They should have been playing the course," said Nicklaus, who managed to stay awake watching the back nine on TV. "He didn't do anything the last nine holes except stay out of harm's way. Nobody challenged him. Piece of cake."

Els, who tried to make a move on No. 13 at Augusta and instead took triple bogey, could not have agreed more.

"I think that's the biggest problem of the tour at the moment," Els said. "Guys get kind of sucked into his game plan. I'm sure he doesn't play myself or Mickelson or the players. I think he plays the golf course and plays to the best of his ability.

"And I think that's why there's such a big gap."

The U.S. Open is the one major that has given Woods the most problems. Despite shattering several records at Pebble Beach, that was his only U.S. Open where he finished under par, and only his second top-10.

The Black Course at Bethpage will be the longest in U.S. Open history (7,214 yards, par 70), by one yard over Congressional in 1997. Woods was never a factor in that U.S. Open, starting with a 74 and finishing in a tie for 19th.

That was his first chance at a real Grand Slam--all four majors in the same year. He gets his third crack at it this week.

"You can't focus on four in a row," Woods said. "You can't win all four in one week. People don't realize you have to win four different tournaments."

The question is whether Woods can stack up to the Black--and if anyone can measure up to Woods, especially on the back nine of a major championship.

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