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Diane Pucin

It's Time to Slam Back

June 18, 2002|Diane Pucin

Tiger Woods should win golf's Grand Slam this year.

That's not an outrageous prediction. What's outrageous is that there is no one to point to and say, "He could beat Tiger" at the British Open next month at Muirfield or the PGA in August at Hazeltine near Minneapolis.

Will it be Sergio Garcia, the wiggling, waggling, gripping, re-gripping star-struck Sergio, who wanted nothing more Sunday at Bethpage Black than to have Woods like him, talk to him, acknowledge his existence? Garcia went so far as to pick up Woods' divot from where it landed in a sand trap and deliver it to him. Would Woods do the same?

Or will it be Phil Mickelson, gambling, grinning, giddy Mickelson who finished second to Woods at the U.S. Open and was inordinately pleased with himself. Still no major titles for Phil, but he was happy as a clam to have been within two shots of Woods a couple of times Sunday.

Woods is 26, just approaching his athletic prime. Woods is, by a significant margin, the best athlete on the golf tour. Woods is, by a significant margin, the mentally strongest man on the golf tour. And Woods is, by a significant margin, the fiercest, toughest competitor on the golf tour. Woods is the hardest worker, the most conscientious preparer.

Whether Woods wins the British Open at Muirfield--a links course of essential fairness favoring a long and accurate driver--is totally up to Tiger.

Thirty years ago, Jack Nicklaus won the first two legs of the Grand Slam. No one has done it since.

And then Nicklaus went off to a British Open played at Muirfield, where he had won the event six years earlier.

Nicklaus lost the 1972 British Open by a stroke to Lee Trevino.

What golf is missing now is a Trevino. Trevino led Nicklaus by five going into the final round and hung on because Trevino was a winner too. Nicklaus shot a final-round 66. Nicklaus actually took the lead. Trevino took it back. Can you imagine Mickelson or Garcia taking the lead back from Woods? Mickelson would do a happy dance over having led at all in the final round of a major. Garcia would help Woods find his ball in the gorse or one of those fairway bunkers and hope Woods said, "Thanks."

In an excerpt from Tour '72, by Michael D'Antonio in Golf magazine, when Trevino heard the roar of the crowd after Nicklaus' birdie, Trevino turned to his caddie and said: "We're behind, son. Gimme that driver. We're going to make something happen."

And Trevino did. He eagled the ninth hole and regained the lead. A great battle had been joined.

At one point in the final round at the '72 British, Trevino, Nicklaus and Tony Jacklin were tied for the lead. There is no Tony Jacklin now. Or Nick Faldo or Seve Ballesteros, other great European challengers. Woods has Colin Montgomerie, a perennially grumpy, rabbit-eared, high-strung runner-up.

On the 17th hole at Muirfield, Trevino hooked his drive into a bunker. After two hacking shots, and still short of the green, Trevino was furious and frustrated. According to D'Antonio, Trevino said: "I was steaming. I was so mad I was just going to hit it and then hit it again. I didn't care if I made eight."

Trevino didn't make eight. The ball landed in the cup. It was a miraculous shot, a save of par.

None of Woods' contemporaries get mad at their bad shots. They get mad at wise guys in the gallery. They get mad if it rains harder on them then it does on Woods. They get mad when the media keep tally of how many majors they haven't won. But getting mad and holing out a par-saver from British Open rough? Not happening.

In "The Classic Courses of Great Britain and Ireland," Scottish writer and Walker Cup golfer Sam McKinlay said of Muirfield: "A man who is in command of his game and himself will fare better at Muirfield than almost any other course I know."

There is no man more in command of himself and of his game than Woods.

Deep and gloomy sand traps; knee-high, impenetrable rough; brutal windy, rainy weather; these are the hallmarks of Muirfield. Woods has the strength, the nerve, the touch, to tame the bunkers and rough. When he played at Stanford, Woods practiced in the worst Pacific Coast storms so he would be ready for weather. Who among Tiger's fellow pros is doing that, or has ever done that?

British Open champions who have won at Muirfield have been men who will always be considered great. Not the John Dalys but Nicklaus, Trevino, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Faldo. Woods' name will fit nicely in that group.

And maybe if Tiger completes the Slam Sweep this year, someone will finally get Trevino-mad, take a club and start swinging for the cup. Maybe someone will do what Nicklaus did when he decided there had to be more to his game than talent, that conditioning really mattered.

Maybe someone will care enough to win the trophies and not be pleased with the big checks. Because Woods wants those trophies. All of them.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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