No question

Quest for seemingly inevitable Slam begins anew

On Tiger Woods at the Masters

April 09, 2008|By RICK MAESE

AUGUSTA, Ga. — AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --Ayear earlier, Tiger Woods - cut like an action hero, cast as a folk hero - sat on the same podium and answered a similar question. At the time, he had won two majors in a row. Had the possibility of winning four straight even crossed his mind?

"No, I'm thinking about trying to place my ball around this golf course," he said. "That's about it." At the time, he would just as soon talk about Nike's overseas factories as a Grand Slam or a Tiger Slam or even a Denny's All-American Slam.

A year later, Tiger is a dad now. He still looks, acts and plays like something from a Bobby Jones dream, from a Phil Mickelson nightmare. He doesn't have a streak of major wins that he's bringing into this week's Masters, but the familiar question came again yesterday, posed a variety of times in a variety ways.

Woods himself had opened the door weeks earlier, saying on his Web site that the Grand Slam was "easily within reason" - a brazen statement of confidence in this game of humility and respect. Since whetting our expectations, had he since changed his mind about the feasibility of winning all four majors this year?

"No," Woods said yesterday, sitting at the same podium, his words short, blunt and certain.

He discussed the possibility of a Grand Slam at more length, but the simple fact that an athlete whose attention is usually as narrow as a pinhole is willing to acknowledge something other than his next shot is quite telling. His sudden willingness to engage on the topic is as good a reason as any to think something might be different this year. If Tiger believes, shouldn't we?

"He says he can get better," said last year's green-jacket winner, Zach Johnson, "which is absolutely scary."

How much better, we might learn in the next few days. Woods tees off tomorrow, and whether he can navigate these greens and the find the fairways seems like an afterthought. After he wins here, what about the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the British at Royal Birkdale?

How much of a favorite is he? Ladbrokes, the British-based oddsmaker, has made Woods an 8-1 favorite to win the Grand Slam this year. The best odds on a non-Tiger competitor to simply win here in Augusta are 10-1, for Mickelson.

"You know, I'd like to bet against him, like the whole field here this week, but it's definitely in his reach," Ernie Els said of Woods' chance at a Grand Slam.

Woods is a bit simplistic in explaining his confidence. "I've done it before," he said, "I've won all four in a row." But he surely knows his Tiger Slam - winning four straight majors over two seasons - is different. There's just one chance a year for a golfer to embark on a Grand Slam, and it always starts at the first tee box of the first major, with the smell of azaleas behind you and the sight of oak trees up ahead.

"Hopefully, I can get it done this year and move on," he said yesterday.

With the Tiger Slam, you could lose the Masters and simply launch a streak at the U.S. Open. Or the British Open. Or the PGA Championship. But lose this week, and all the talk of Tiger and the only achievement that still eludes him gets shelved for a full year.

Not that anyone is expecting that to happen. He hasn't been this dominant since 2000. Off the tee, he's as straight and accurate as a laser pointer. He chips and putts as if he left the car running.

Since last year's Masters, he has won 10 of the 17 tournaments he has entered. A win this weekend would give him more PGA Tour wins than Ben Hogan and more green jackets than Arnold Palmer.

Publicly, he talks about the Grand Slam as if it's a random shake of the dice: He usually wins at least four tournaments a year; he'll likely win at least four more this year; maybe they'll happen to be majors. "Just got to win the right four," he said. "That's what it boils down to."

There's more to it than that. You're talking four tournaments, 288 holes, well over 1,000 strokes. How do you account for a single gust of wind? One unlucky bounce? A Vijay Singh or a Phil? Or worse - a photographer clicking during your backswing?

"All of these little factors that come in, just one time is the difference between winning and losing," Woods said. "It really is hard to quantify that to people. ... You ask all of the players and the caddies, they are the only ones who really understand the difference between winning and losing, how fine that is."

Woods' game is at a level it has rarely been. His confidence is, too. Aside from achievements of longevity, there's only one thing he hasn't done. And because of the competitor he is, you can bet his resume and his legend won't be complete until he completes a Grand Slam. For Tiger, the question feels like when and not if - and the answer feels closer than it ever has before.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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