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Earning Their Stripes

Tiger Woods is still the man to beat on the PGA Tour, but his newly emboldened competitors have narrowed the talent gap.

August 14, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The 85th PGA Championship begins today at Oak Hill Country Club with a new mantra emanating from tour professionals not nicknamed after a zoo animal.

The chant is, basically, "We're not afraid anymore."

The body language has shifted from cower to tower, with grown men crawling out of the rough to face a new day when Tiger Woods is still royalty but maybe no longer exalted king.

The movement has come full circle since last year's PGA at Hazeltine, when former stereo salesman Rich Beem became the first player on center stage to stare down Woods on the final day of a major championship.

Woods, remember, finished with four consecutive birdies and it still wasn't enough to win.

Beem continued the PGA's history of weird and wacky moments and finishes, becoming the 12th player in the last 15 years to make the PGA his first major victory.

Beem's victory also started a string in which four consecutive players won major titles for the first time: Beem, Mike Weir at the Masters, Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open and Ben Curtis at the British Open.

Beem does not take full credit for helping to make this the PGA Tour again instead of the Tiger Tour, but he acknowledges Hazeltine as sort of a crossroads.

"I think I probably proved to everybody that if you stick to your guns and you stick to your game, then, you know, he's going to have to play some great golf to beat you," Beem said Wednesday.

"Johnny Miller has always commented, I don't know if this is correct terminology, but, we are a bunch of pansies and we roll over when Tiger gets in the hunt and we just give him tournaments. I think we have gotten more comfortable with him around and him up on the leaderboard. We all know that we've got a lot of game."

It is a testament to Woods' dominance that he has been reduced this year to "just" a great player.

Woods, certainly, has not wilted

He is not, by any means, in a slump.

Gray Davis is in a slump.

"I've won four times," Woods huffed this week.

That said, other players have stepped up to match Woods' excellence, if not better it.

It is one reason why this year's PGA Championship should be as wide open as ever and why Woods, for the first time in a long time, has a fight on his hands.

After winning four consecutive PGA player-of-the-year awards, and five of the last six, Woods needs a strong finish to keep from turning over his title to Davis Love III, Weir, Furyk or maybe even Kenny Perry.

"Tiger is always going to win his fair share of golf tournaments, there's just no stopping that," Beem said. "But, you know, it's not so much a case of we are just going to give it to him anymore."

It's fair to say the gap has closed between Woods and the field, but also fair to say the gap used to be so cavernous Evel Knievel wouldn't try to fly over it in a rocket.

While old-timers and up-and-comers alike have improved their games, Woods has gone "major-less" since June 2002 and made a somewhat dramatic club change, switching from a Nike driver to an old Titleist.

Nike, of course, pays Woods a huge chunk of change to endorse its products.

What next, Woods switching from Buick to Ford?

"One of the more difficult decisions I've had to make," Woods said of his driver switch.

Some may view the move as a concession to a career patch that has slowed, if only temporarily, Woods' red-hot pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 professional majors.

Woods has been stuck on eight majors for more than a year now, and is still well on pace to achieve his ultimate goal. Yet, the competition has definitely grown stiffer.

"I think attitudes have changed," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said. "Now players are saying, 'Well, if he plays great and he wins, fine, but let's see him do it.' Whether his game is being affected, I don't know. It's just the more steady, solid players are putting in the scores and they are the ones that seem to be coming out on top more and more."

It should all make for an interesting 72 holes (or more) this week on a venerable, tree-lined course that sets up more like a regular tour stop than any of the three other majors.

Oak Hill is plenty long at 7,134 yards, but an unusually wet summer has left the greens approachable and soft. The PGA has countered by growing the rough long -- too long, many players say -- and the fairways have been narrowed in an effort to protect par.

The course boasts maybe the toughest finishing holes on the major circuit; a 495-yard mule-ride on the par-four 17th followed by the 482-yard, pack-a-lunch par-four 18th.

The PGA has made a habit of crowning first-time major winners, some of them completely unexpected champions such as Bob Tway, John Daly and Beem.

For a change, Woods starts this week as only one of the favorites instead of the prohibitive one.

Love, Weir, Furyk and others have been hot on Tiger's tail.

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