Golfers can’t Bear to test Woods

July 16, 2002 9:13 AM
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For the first time since 1972, the world of golf is abuzz about the possibility of a modern Grand Slam. Not surprisingly, Tiger Woods is the favorite atop the field of players headed to Muirfield for the 2002 British Open and is itching to do what his idol, Jack Nicklaus, was unable to do 30 years ago.

Nicklaus, shooting for his third Major in a year at Muirfield (where he previously won in 1966), suffered from neck pain for the first three rounds due to a "bad pillow." The Golden Bear then took driver out of his bag and shot a sizzling 66 on Sunday to put himself in contention for the win. Lee Trevino ended the Bear’s chances when he chipped in for an improbable par on the 17th hole and ended up winning by a stroke.

Expectations, however, are that nobody will be able to challenge Tiger this year, as Trevino and Tony Jacklin were able to do to Nicklaus three decades ago. In fact, many golf critics these days scoff at many of the great players in the field these days who are chasing Woods. The critics are forgetting that the reason these golfers appear to "fall apart" instead of making a run in the final rounds of Majors is because they are trying to make things happen.

Tiger has such an impressive record when he has the lead in the final round because other players are then forced to try and make shots. When golfers attempt to shoot low scores, they take risks that in tough conditions often produce disastrous results.

The 131st "Open Championship" actually is the first Major that the field has a wide open shot at Tiger. With Augusta (7,270 yards) having been lengthened and Bethpage the longest U.S. Open in history (7,214 yards), the advantage has been with the players on Tour who can hit the ball a mile. Tiger trails only John Daly in driving distance this year.

Unlike these courses, Muirfield is a par 71 that will play only 7,034 yards. It’s primary defense is the weather. Muirfield, like all links courses, plays right on the ocean. The winds and rain that result from this type of location favors shotÂí­makers, who can keep their shot trajectory low, hit greens and stay out of the rough.

In an especially wet summer, the "grass" outside the fairways should find players tending to hit wayward shots looking for safari guides. Woods may be the only player capable of muscling shots out of atrocious lies and conditions. The tougher the conditions, the more it appears that Tiger’s mental concentration helps him.

So, is it a given that the rest of the field is playing for second place?

Tiger seems annoyed with the critics who claim that his "Tiger Slam" wasn’t really a Grand Slam. The world’s No. 1 seems compelled to set history by holding all four trophies on one calendar year. However, aside from his win at St. Andrews in 2000, his results at the British Open have been”¦ unTiger-like.

In three of the last six years, Woods has finished outside the Top-20. His eight shot victory at St. Andrews in 2000 gave Woods the career Grand Slam at age 24. Nicklaus previously was the youngest, winning all four titles by age 26. With Jack’s records and legendary play firmly focused in Tiger’s sights, motivation will be at an all-time high.

Who is capable of stopping Woods? Outside of the heavy favorites, some of the players with extremely attractive odds that could make Sunday’s leaderboard include Padraig Harrington, Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk, and Peter Lonard.

Justin Rose, who has two official European Tour victories this year and two unofficial wins, is a good longshot. The 21-year-old Rose turned pro after coming up just short in the 1998 British Open, won by Mark O’Meara. Rose is currently ranked in the Top 10 on the European Tour and was among the leaders last week at the Scottish Open.

This British championship could be history in the making. It would be more enjoyable, though, if someone puts the pressure on Woods.

TIGER AT BRITISH

YEAR RESULT

1996 T-22

1997 T-24

1998 3rd

1999 T-7

2000 Won

2001 T-25