As usual, eye on the Tiger at Open

Winless in 5 tries, Woods still considered Pebble Beach favorite


June 15, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif.-He has changed the clubs he uses and, more recently, the golf balls he plays. But like switching caddies and agents, it doesn't matter to Tiger Woods.

He is still the favorite to win every tournament he enters.

Take the 100th U.S. Open, which is scheduled to begin here at the Pebble Beach Golf Links early this morning. From the moment he tees off at 8:40 a.m. local time, it will be as if a switch has been turned on.`Tiger Woods' presence at any tournament, whether a major or not, makes it a bigger and better tournament," Colin Montgomerie said yesterday. "We're all anxious ... and we would agree that we're all looking for one score all the time, and it's his."

Woods, 24, has not won the Open in his five trips, the last three since turning pro. His best finish came last year at Pinehurst, when he stayed in contention until the last few holes on Sunday and finished tied for third.

But he won here earlier this year, coming from seven shots behind with seven holes to play for what became his fifth straight victory in a PGA Tour event. It was the second of four wins this year, the most recent coming three weeks ago at the Memorial Tournament.

It was there that Woods played his new Nike ball in a competitive setting for the first time in the United States -he had used it the week before at a tournament in Germany - after years of playing Titleist. He won by five shots.

"People think that I've all of a sudden changed one magical day," Woods said earlier this week. "I've been testing the golf ball for a few months and found some of the things I liked in it. I've had some pretty good scores. I have found, that over time, you will build that confidence and trust."

Woods also is building something else - a legend.

Another victory here for Woods would be the 20th in his nearly four-year and already brilliant PGA Tour career. It would be his third major, following last year's PGA Championship at Medinah and his record-setting, history-making 12-shot win at the Masters in 1997.

Asked if he has any chance of breaking the record of Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 professional majors, Woods said, "It's viable, definitely. I think for any person who wants to win as many majors, or more than Jack did, you have to put yourself in that position to win.

"You're not going to win every one. There are times when you are going to get beat down the stretch. There are times they're going to give you a major, and other times a person is going to flat outplay you and you're going to play bad."

Not that Woods should be made an overwhelming favorite, as the oddsmakers giving 3-to-1 that he'll win might suggest. There are others here, such as former PGA champion Hal Sutton, perennial major bridesmaid Phil Mickelson and Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, who have beaten Woods in head-to-head competition this year.

Sutton recalled the feeling he had going to sleep the night before the final round of Tournament Players Championship in late March, his four-shot lead shrunk to one by a triple-bogey on the infamous par-3 17th hole at Sawgrass. Woods, as usual when he is not leading, was lurking.

"I was sitting in bed and I thought, `Well, you know what, I am not praying to him, so he is not a god,'" said Sutton, who was once labeled `The Bear Apparent' as a possible successor to Nicklaus. "He is human like I am, so we can do this."

Sutton did, winning the next day while playing in the final twosome with Woods. It is what Clarke had done in the finals of the World Golf Championship's match-play event, what Mickelson had done before that at the Buick Invitational in San Diego to stop Woods' winning streak.

It is what any number of players hope to do here.

"I think it is wide-open," said David Duval, still the No. 2 player in the world behind Woods despite 14 months without a victory. "I think when you enter a U.S. Open, it's a great equalizer. And whoever is on top of their game and on top of their wits and nerves and attitude is the guy you need to look at as the favorite."

Said reigning Masters champion Vijay Singh, who finished tied with Woods at Pinehurst last year, "There's a lot of guys out there that are going to be in the hunt."

It has been an interesting education at the Open for Woods.

After winning six straight USGA events - three Junior Amateurs and three U.S. Amateurs, Woods made his Open debut in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills, where he was forced to withdraw when he injured his wrist during an opening round 83. In his final year as an amateur, Woods finished tied for 83rd at Oakland Hills in 1996.

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