PGA field no match for Woods

Challenge only part missing from game

July 25, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Tiger Woods left here Sunday night with the Claret Jug he received for winning the 129th British Open and a feeling of sheer invincibility.

How else would you feel if you'd won golf's past two major championships by a combined 23 strokes and secured your place in the game's lore by becoming the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam?

Jack Nicklaus knows that feeling. He was 26 when he finished off his career Slam in the 1966 British Open at Muirfield. It was the sixth of his record 18 major professional championships.

"His goals are probably to beat my goals," Nicklaus said last week before playing here at the Old Course, where he would miss the cut. "[Bobby] Jones was never my goal. I never really kept track of it until I won here in 1970 and they said, `You have three more to go.'

"I just liked competition. I liked to play. I enjoyed the challenges of each guy that came along. Arnold [Palmer] first and Gary [Player], then all of a sudden [Tom] Weiskopf and [Tom] Watson, and [Lee] Trevino and [Johnny] Miller. Tiger hasn't had a challenge yet, but he will."

The question isn't just when, but who? David Duval, the world's second-ranked player, buckled under the pressure of coming back against Woods in Sunday's final round. Ernie Els, ranked third, never got into serious contention after the third round and wound up tied for second, eight strokes behind.

It is a question that will be asked until next month's PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., where Woods, 24, will try to become the first player since the legendary Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three majors in the same year. Given his performances here and at last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, it seems likely.

"I've been very fortunate to have my game peak at the right time," said Woods, whose four-round total of 19-under par 269 was the lowest under par in any major championship. "I've always said that you like to have your game peak at four different times a year. It's something you hope for and wish for, but to have it happen is a different story."

But why are the game's other talented players, with the exception of Vijay Singh in his victory at this year's Masters, not coming through? It is the same reason Michael Jordan was able to lead the Chicago Bulls to six championships, and why Pete Sampras has been as dominating a figure in tennis as Woods has become in golf.

Talent - and a bit of intimidation.

Listen to Mike Weir, who came into the final round in last year's PGA Championship tied with Woods for the lead and left Medinah in 10th after shooting 80. "It's a challenge not to think about him," Weir said Saturday. "But he can do things that you can't, so why try?"

Listen to Nick Faldo, a three-time British Open and Masters champion who said last week that he didn't mind being over the hill - especially with Woods in the picture. "It's almost as though now guys will pick events to play in [that Woods isn't] and play the Tigerless Tour to have a chance to win."

That tour will be played the next two weeks, at the John Deere Classic in Silvas, Ill., and The International in Castle Rock, Colo. Though Woods slyly declined to divulge his schedule, he likely will play next at the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., because of a contractual obligation to play at least one Buick-sponsored event each year.

Woods also likes to play three weeks in a row when he can, and the Buick Open will be followed by the PGA Championship and the World Golf Championship-NEC Invitational, tournaments that he won last year.

Is there a chance that his domination can make golf - a sport that had trouble attracting viewers after the reign of Nicklaus and Palmer - seem dull?

"Did basketball fans get tired of what Michael Jordan did when his team was winning all those championships?" said Australian Stuart Appleby, who has become a friend of Woods' since living near him outside Orlando, Fla. "It only kept bringing more people into the sport, which is what Tiger is doing."

It still doesn't answer whether Woods will have any challenge from his contemporaries on the tour. Palmer needed to wait for Nicklaus to feed the public's appetite for a rivalry. Nicklaus had rivals at the beginning, including Hogan in the 1960 U.S. Open, and at the height of his career.

Nicklaus seems confident someone will step up to the tee, so to speak.

"There will be some guys who will come along, maybe some kid watching on television, like Nick Faldo did years ago by watching me on television and took up the game," Nicklaus said. "He's certainly not going to get the next 15 years with a free run."

But who's going to stop him, and when? At St. Andrews, as at Pebble Beach, the answer was nobody.

NOTE: ABC's telecast of the final round drew a big-market overnight rating of 7.5 with a 21 share. That represents a 32 percent increase from last year's 5.7/14. Each rating point represents 1 percent of the nation's estimated 100.8 million TV homes. The share is the percentage of in-use TVs tuned to a given program.

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