Woods now a major player in history of golfing greats

Nicklaus' 18 not just a distant shot

June 20, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - By the time the U.S. Open returns to the Pebble Beach Golf Links, Tiger Woods likely will have played another tournament - or five - with the same kind of domination he showed in winning this year's Open by a record-shattering 15 strokes. Given that it could be another decade before the Open comes back to the Monterey Peninsula, and the fact that he has won three majors at age 24, Woods might be looking to surpass what many figured would be an unbreakable record - the 18 professional majors belonging to Jack Nicklaus.

For now, Woods will have to settle for being tied with Nicklaus as the youngest player to win three majors. Next month, Woods could become the youngest to win a career Grand Slam when he tees it up in the British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Consider this: He will be a bigger favorite to win there than he was here.

Asked Sunday night about the possibility of a career Slam - something achieved by only Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player - Woods said: "That's something I would love to happen. There could be no better site to have it occur than at the home of golf. That's where it all started.

"If I could somehow be fortunate enough to play well and at the right time, and get that Claret Jug [given to the British Open champion], it would be a good feeling. I came close in '98. And if I made a few putts last year, it may have been a different story. I have to put myself in position."

The dominance Woods displayed at the Open was merely the culmination of a stretch that includes 12 victories in his past 21 PGA Tour events. He has won his past two and probably will play next early in July at the Western Open, a tournament he has won two of the past three years.

"In the '60s you had Palmer, in the '70s you had Nicklaus, and in the '80s you had Watson - seems like we've really got a dominant figure in golf, in any sport, with Tiger Woods," said Ernie Els of South Africa, who tied for second with Miguel Angel Jimenez. "He's probably the most recognizable sportsman on the planet right now."

It was less than three years ago that Els, then 27, was being mentioned along with Justin Leonard as a possible rival for Woods. That was the year Woods had won the Masters by 12 strokes, and Els had won his second Open, and Leonard won the British Open.

What has happened? Els has been hampered by injuries and indifference, winning just twice since. Leonard has gone more than two years since his last victory, at the 1998 Players Championship, and has barely been in the hunt. David Duval, who won 11 times in 34 events and briefly took over the No. 1 world ranking, is now on an 0-for-28 streak.

"I've had my run-ins with Tiger in the past, but I haven't had enough of those run-ins," said Els, who came into Sunday's round 10 shots behind and was basically run over by Woods' 4-under-par 67. "I'd definitely like to get more of those battles with Tiger. I think it's definitely good for my game."

But Els doesn't mind seeing the effect of Woods' latest streak.

"It's always good for us, it's good for me," he said. "It brings in sponsors, it brings in a lot of media, it brings in a lot of people. Seems like golf has really taken off with him coming through. David Duval helped it a lot. Sergio [Garcia] and other players [helped]. But it could be even better for golf if someone could step up and play with him."

It seems that the only way for some of the game's top players to get on the same level with Woods is for him to come back to them.

"He probably has the best swing on tour. You couple that with he's probably the longest hitter on tour, and he has about the best short game on tour and he's one of the best putters on tour," said Watson, who once was held in similar regard to Woods but is now thankful to be on the Senior Tour. "You can now understand why he's 10 shots ahead of the field in the U.S. Open."

Woods has always been called a natural talent, the prodigy who at age 4 was beating 10-year-olds. But as much as his life has been carried out in public - from his early television appearances to his years as the country's top amateur - much of his success still comes from his insatiable work ethic.

It was evident here. On Sunday morning, Woods was seen on the putting green, the practice tee and even the chipping green, where he drew applause for holing out back-to-back flop shots from heavy rough. It carried through to his performance on the course later in the day.

"I've always had a tremendous belief in my abilities. I've proven it in tournaments. But more so, I've proven it in practice sessions when no one's been around," said Woods.. "As a kid on the back nine, and playing against some of the best players, you're trying to imitate their swings. I'm no different. I still do it today, just for fun.

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