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U.S. OPEN AT OLYMPIA FIELDS, ILL. Today-Sunday, 7,190
yards, Par 36-34--70. TV today: ESPN, 8 a.m.-noon,
2-4 p.m.; Ch. 4, noon-2 p.m.

Giving Chase

Woods says he has never been in a slump, but his recent struggles and the short course raise hopes of others

June 12, 2003|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — A lot has been written about Tiger Woods and his so-called slump, enough for Tiger himself to weigh in on our written words.

"Very flowery at times," Woods critiqued.

For the record, Woods still sits comfortably atop golf's leaderboard. He ranks first in the world, has won three of the seven PGA tour events he has entered this year, garnered $3.287 million in wages, and his 69.58 scoring average hardly bespeaks a downturn.

You want slump? The Detroit Tigers are a slump.

"I don't think I've ever been in a slump, no," Woods said this week. "I think my overall career has been pretty good. Every since I came out of the womb and I've started playing golf, I've had a pretty good career."

Yet, Woods has so dominated the field since he joined the tour in 1996 that even the slightest downtick in his game can be looked upon by others as a decent reason for showing up.

Which brings us to today's opening round of the 103rd U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, a tournament staged in middle America, perhaps for the benefit of the middle-aged man with command of his middle irons.

The North Course here is so nondescript and seemingly unimposing that a plodder such as Jeff Sluman might even think he has a chance.

That, combined with the slump that Woods really isn't in, might turn this into an Open almost anyone could win.

Then again, Woods could blow through this field like the wind down Rush Street and no one would be shocked.

Woods is not in so much of a slump that it didn't stop Spaniard Sergio Garcia from reinventing his swing to keep up with Tiger.

"Tiger is not winning every week, as you can see," Garcia said, "

What has made this U.S. Open a Stewart Cink or swim is the mere fact that Olympia Fields has not been conceded to Woods beforehand.

Unlike last year at Bethpage Black, you don't look at the dimensions at Olympia Fields and guess Woods might be the only player to finish under par -- as he was.

Olympia Fields stretches only 7,190 yards. It has only two par fives, and they are both on the front side: No. 1 and No. 6. Unlike Bethpage, this is not a bomber's course.

Woods and other long drivers are not likely to dominate with length off the tee.

"This course lets more people in the game than Bethpage," Davis Love III said.

As unromantic as it sounds, this U.S. Open could come down to a snooze-off among mid-iron experts and dogleg strategists.

This track might prove enough of a gap-closer on Woods and leave an ever-widening field of contenders ready to pounce on the opportunity.

For you slump theorists, Woods has not won a major since last year's victory at Bethpage.

His wind-blown, third-round 81 took him out of the British Open; he lost a Sunday shootout against Rich Beem at the PGA, and finished tied for 15th at this year's Masters.

Into Woods' temporary major championship void have stepped Ernie Els, who won the British, and two first-time major winners in Beem and Masters champion Mike Weir.

"When your time is right, you have to grab it," Els said. "Tiger is going to beat us 70% of the time ... but other times he's not there. So you've just got to plug away and do your thing."

If Woods continues his major "slump," any number of otherwise anonymous contenders might make a run at the title. Here are a few to consider:

* Jim Furyk. He's playing superb golf and, at 33, is about due for his first major breakthrough. Furyk's funky swing seems a perfect match for this somewhat twisted course and he has had 10 top-10 finishes this year.

* Kenny Perry. You wonder how much magic there is left in his stick after consecutive tournament victories at Colonial and Memorial.

Perry has been a solid pro but has never fared well at majors. He made a run at the PGA Championship once, losing in a playoff, but his best finish at a U.S. Open was a tie for 25th in 1993.

But if Perry is ever going to break through, what better time than this?

"I'm 42, been out here 17 years," he said. "I've just been enjoying these last few years of my career."

Perry said he has always put too much pressure on himself in previous majors.

"I'm not going to," he said of this year's.

* Padraig Harrington. The 31-year-old Irishman has four top-25 finishes this year and finished tied for eighth at last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage.

His name is frequently mentioned as one of those players likely to "break out" with a big win.

"I do need a lot of things probably to go right for me in order to be a winner here this week," he said. "I'm prepared, if that happens, to go with it.... Am I ready? If I get the chance, yeah, I'm ready."

* Steve Flesch. Is it possible the lefty Flesch could follow lefty Weir's Masters championship with a major of his own? Maybe. Flesch, 36, won the HP Classic of New Orleans earlier this year.

If he won here, who knows, they might even start making scissors for lefties.

* Weir. Not only is the Canadian one of the tour's hottest players, the course at Olympia Fields suits his style of play.

"It's going to be a lot of mid-irons," he said.

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