Woods beatable, but not in the stretch

Heading into PGA play, world's No. 1 still has major aura, British aside


August 14, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHASKA, Minn. - The story line for the 84th PGA Championship might have changed on that stormy Saturday at Muirfield in last month's British Open, when Tiger Woods saw his chances for a possible single-season Grand Slam disintegrate with a windblown, rain-soaked 81.

The subplots and characters - particularly the main character - remain as untouched at Hazeltine National as Woods seemed untouchable until the world's top-ranked golfer played the role of hacker in the Scottish hay.

But the fact remains: Woods has yet to be beaten down the stretch in a major this year.

Though Ernie Els took home the Claret Jug after winning the British Open, the various libations he has sipped from it since would have tasted a lot sweeter had Woods been one of the three players the 32-year-old South African beat in the playoff.

"It will be great to play with Tiger on a Sunday afternoon and really compete and be competitive with him and see what way you can go," Els, who will play the first two rounds at Hazeltine with Woods and defending champion David Toms, said yesterday.

The latest victim for Woods in a career that has produced eight major professional championships and 33 PGA Tour victories - Esteban Toledo, a 39-year-old former boxer from Mexico - lasted until the back nine on Sunday at the Buick Open before succumbing.

Though Toledo is not in the same class as Els, Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia of Spain, none of these world-class players has had much luck against Woods in majors. Els has never really gone down the stretch of a major against Woods. Mickelson and Garcia have each lost twice, including at this year's U.S. Open at the Bethpage Black Course in Farmingdale, N.Y.

"There's no doubt he's a great player, probably if not the best there's ever been, he's close to it," said Garcia, who, as a 19-year-old, lost to Woods by a stroke in the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah. "I know my chances out there. I know what I can do. I know that if I'm playing well, and I'm doing what I have to do, I can beat him."

With Woods out of contention in last year's PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Mickelson had a chance to end his winless streak at majors that now stands at 0-for-37 as a pro. Mickelson wound up losing to Toms by a stroke.

"I think that it would have been more frustrating had I not had a chance to win," said Mickelson, 32. "I felt like I played very well that week, and I felt like although I didn't beat every single player in the field, I played to a level that I need to play at to win a major championship."

The scary part about Woods is he doesn't always have to be at his best to win. He wasn't at Augusta when he won his third Masters. He wasn't at the U.S. Open, when he beat Mickelson by three strokes. He wasn't last week at the Buick, when he won by four.

A victory in the PGA would get Woods halfway to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major professional championships, and it would also duplicate Woods' feat of 2000, when he became the only player besides the legendary Ben Hogan (in 1953) to win three majors in the same calendar year.

"It's unbelievably difficult," Woods said yesterday. "To be able to go out there and have your game peak for that one week and deal with all the different circumstances you have to deal with that particular week, I mean anything can arise.

"You're going to get bad breaks, you're going to get good breaks. You've just to move on and handle your business. That's not always easy. I've been fortunate to have my game peak at the right time."

What happened to Woods during the third round of the British Open, when he shot his highest round as a pro, has given others hope here in America's heartland, what with the forecast calling for thunderstorms on the weekend.

Fortunately for Woods, ice-fishing season isn't around the corner.

"All the guys who were out there, I mean we all froze out there," said Woods. "It was 34-degree wind chill, wind blowing up to they said 35 miles an hour and rain coming down sideways. I don't think you will find that here in August. Maybe later in the year."

Unless Woods starts hitting the ball sideways, and there was nothing he did last weekend in Michigan to indicate that, most figure he will be in the hunt for his third Wanamaker Trophy (he also won at Valhalla in 2000, beating journeyman Bob May in a playoff ) come Sunday.

For those keeping track, Woods has won seven of the past 12 majors.

"I think I've put myself there enough times that you're bound to win one," said Woods. "Because I won one early in my career, it certainly relaxed me in knowing that I could handle it. My first full year as a pro, in '97, I won the Masters, and I think it took a big burden off of me."

Woods said the same thing might happen for Els, whose victory at Muirfield was his third major but came more than five years after the South African had won the second of his two U.S. Open titles.

"I think that's going to be a great thing for him, and I think it's going to provide a nice atmosphere if we ever get a chance to go down the stretch, in a major championship," Woods said. "He's done it before, and I've done it before."

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