A sense of destiny guides Woods on Muirfield path

Masters, U.S. Open champ tees off toward 3rd major

2002 British Open

July 18, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GULLANE, Scotland - History suggests that Tiger Woods will win the 131st British Open this weekend at Muirfield.

The list of the 14 past Open champions at this 111-year-old course considered by many to be the purest test of any in the rotation includes modern legends such as Jack Nicklaus and those from long ago such as Harry Vardon. Starting with a fellow named Harold Hilton back in 1892, there is not a slouch in the bunch.

Logic, too, tells us that Woods, 26, will become the second player in history to win the first three legs of golf's Grand Slam. (Ben Hogan performed the feat in 1953, but a scheduling conflict prevented him from competing in the PGA Championship after he won the British.)

Based on Woods' performance at the Masters in April and at last month's U.S. Open, and on a weather forecast that predicts the course will get drier, faster and tougher once play begins today, it is hard to believe Woods won't go home Sunday with his second Claret Jug and the ninth major championship of his career.

"It's a different style than the courses we've played [in the British Open]," Woods said earlier this week. "It's still, nonetheless, one of the most fair golf courses we've played because everything is right in front of you. There is no hidden agendas, no tricks or anything like that. It's one of those golf courses that very fair and [says], `Come get me.' "

That's sort of the same message Woods is sending to the rest of the field trying to trip him up in his pursuit of becoming the first player to win all four majors in the same calendar year. Rated a 7-4 favorite to win by British bookmakers, Woods will have the advantage of not having to hit his driver many times because, with the course at a shade more than 7,000 yards, he can attack it with a 2-iron.

"I was hitting a 2-iron out there sometimes over 300 yards because it was running along the ground," Woods said. "The fairways, even though they're soft, if you land the ball in the correct knob, it will release and just continue to go. If you hit it low, the ball is going to run on a links course."

It won't be as benign as St. Andrews, where Woods won in an eight-shot runaway two years ago by avoiding the bunkers the entire week. Nor should Muirfield prove as monstrous as the Black Course at Bethpage State Park in Long Island, N.Y., was in last month's U.S. Open, simply because of the comparative lengths of the two venues.

Woods said he is looking forward to having his imagination tested as much as his ability.

"I absolutely love it," he said of the kind of game he has to play in the British Open. "I think it's more fun than any other golf we play, because you get the chance to be creative. You have to create a shot, see a shot and hit it so much by feel."

That type of golf helps bring a few other players considered legitimate threats to Woods into the hunt, but eliminates just as many if not more from contention.

It could make Spain's Sergio Garcia the clear second choice, given that he won the British Amateur here in 1998. It doesn't hurt that Garcia leads the PGA Tour this year in the category of total driving, which takes into account length and accuracy. Or that, at 22, he seems on the verge of winning his first major championship.

"I feel like it's closer and closer every time," said Garcia, who was in contention at the U.S. Open and wound up fourth after playing with Woods in the final round. "I think I just keep believing in myself and keep trying as hard as I'm trying, the moment will come. It has to. I still have a lot of years to come."

If the course stays relatively soft the next couple of days, it could give Phil Mickelson a chance to finally break through and win his first major. But Mickelson will have to cut down on the mistakes that cost him a chance of overtaking Woods in the final round at Bethpage, and have hampered him throughout a career of narrow and disappointing defeats.

"Without a doubt, I feel I'm more prepared than I have been for this event," said Mickelson, 32, whose best finish in eight previous British Opens as a professional was an 11th-place tie two years ago. "I certainly felt that way when I first came over here, but as 10 years have gone by [since he appeared as an amateur], I realized that the shots I had were not going to do well here."

Though there is some thought that a course like Muirfield will give more players a chance than Augusta or Bethpage did this year - "Anybody who has been there [in contention] often enough and hits it in the fairway enough can play this golf course," said Davis Love III - a more realistic viewpoint is that it all depends on Woods.

If he hits it close to the way he did at St. Andrews, or even if he hits it a little better than he did in the year's first two majors, it could be another blowout. If he has some mechanical breakdown in his swing, as happened when he finished tied for 25th last year at Royal Lytham, it could open the door for someone else. Or, perhaps, another player will just have a hot week.

Leave it to Colin Montgomerie to say what most in the field won't.

"We hope Tiger doesn't perform, for one, and then we all will have an opportunity, and let's hope that I can take the opportunity this year, if that door happens to be open," said Montgomerie, who has only one Top 10 finish - a tie for eighth at Turnberry in 1994 - in 12 British Open tries. "If he plays the way he has been and is doing, we all believe the opportunity won't arise.

"But let's hope it does."

And if Montgomerie or anyone else plays his best, as does Woods?

"He wins," Montgomerie said.

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