Woods makes grand stand

Ability, `inner strength' help turn up game in time for major tournaments

July 15, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He is probably the most physically gifted golfer ever to play the game. With a body seemingly more suited for some other sport - track or perhaps even football - Tiger Woods is considered more of an athlete than any of the legends who preceded him.

Woods is also admired for the way he thinks his way around the course, showing the imagination to try seemingly impossible shots and the ability to make them seem routine.

Those attributes have allowed Woods, 26, to dominate his sport like no other player in history. They have given Woods an advantage that few of the world's top players in any sport can claim.

Woods can take a month off from competition, then show up at a major championship and win.

"I took three weeks off before the PGA Championship in 1999 and won," Woods said recently. "In 1997, I took four weeks off after winning the Masters and won the Byron Nelson. I've done it a lot of different ways."

Woods will attempt to do it again this week, when play begins Thursday in the British Open at Muirfield Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland. Despite having not played in a tournament since winning last month's U.S. Open in Farmingdale, N.Y., Woods will be a prohibitive favorite.

After all, he has won seven of the past 11 majors, including the first two this year. His victories in the Masters and U.S. Open made Woods the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to get halfway to a single-season Grand Slam, which remains a feat no player in modern history has accomplished.

"He is a man controlling the race," Englishman Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion, said after finishing a respectable fifth in the U.S. Open. "If he slows down, the rest will slow. If he picks up the pace, they will go with him. He has such inner strength."

It has enabled Woods to win while not playing at his best. Just as Nicklaus seemed to will himself to victory, particularly in majors, so does Woods. At neither the Masters in April nor at the U.S. Open on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park did Woods put on a mesmerizing performance.

Each time, however, he won by a comfortable three-shot margin.

There is the feeling now that if Woods plays well early and is near the lead, he will win. If he starts slowly, he is likely to remain back in the pack. How he is playing coming into a major hardly matters either.

"Tiger Woods has the talent that he can turn up at majors and perform," Ireland's Padraig Harrington said recently.

Though Woods never divulges his thoughts in public, his body language often suggests when his game is in sync and when it's not. He is particularly adept at this during major championships, where he either takes home the trophy or barely contends.

For all his top-five finishes in regular PGA Tour events, Woods has never finished second in a major. In contrast, Nicklaus, whose record of 18 major championships Woods is chasing, finished second a record 19 times.

The best Woods has done in a major he didn't win was at the 1998 British Open, where he finished third.

"It's a different talent to win a tournament and to win a tournament you want to win," said Harrington, who played in the shadow of Woods' white-hot spotlight during the third round of this year's U.S. Open. "It's a totally different level of ability."

Much has been made of Phil Mickelson's inability to beat Woods in a major, but maybe the equation should be turned around. Why is Woods so unbeatable once he takes the 36- or 54-hole lead?

His victory in the U.S. Open was his eighth under such conditions against no losses.

"You just know Tiger is not going to make any big mistakes," said 2001 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen of South Africa, who finished second to Woods this year at Augusta. "You know you have to lift your game and start making birdies."

Said Spain's Sergio Garcia, who played in the final group at this year's U.S. Open: "He is able to do whatever it takes to win."

Sometimes, it's a matter of making big par putts.

"You have to just kind of focus and bear down and you know those shots are crucial, especially those par putts," Woods said. "I've always said that it's a better feeling inside when you make a big par putt than it is a birdie. It's always nice not to drop a shot."

Woods also has become a more gracious winner. When he won the Byron Nelson in 1997, Woods unwittingly ticked off the rest of the PGA Tour by stating he didn't have his "A" game. At the Open last month, Woods came to Mickelson's defense when someone intimated that golf's perennial best man had choked again.

Though still a bit detached from his idolizing public and cautious with what he tells the media, Woods has done his best to act like one of the guys. "It was great playing with him," Goosen said at Augusta. "I've played with him a few times now, and I enjoyed it. He's a great guy."

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