While Tiger Woods was playing bumper pool in a creek last
Friday, it occurred to some of us that maybe we shouldn't
concede him the Grand Slam yet. When he skulled a greenside
bunker shot a few holes later--and then fluffed his comeback
pitch so badly that onlookers gasped--the idea began to take
hold that some un-Tiger might have a chance to win next week's
U.S. Open at Congressional.
This is an article from the June 9, 1997 issue
To be sure, these heresies formed in our minds while Woods was
shooting a back-nine 42 in the second round of the Memorial
Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, putting him perilously close to
missing his first cut as a professional. (Nobody looks
invincible with a pants leg rolled up to the knee and a bare
left foot steeped in murky water.) But Tiger's travails had to
encourage those Tour players who still have their sights set on
big goals: major championships, Vardon Trophies, money titles
and the like.
Tom Lehman, for instance. Last year's leading money winner,
British Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up didn't do anything
special in the rain-lengthened Memorial--he finished at
three-under-par 213 for 54 holes, 11 strokes behind the winner,
Vijay Singh--but his practice demeanor was that of a man
preparing to hunt dangerous game.
"I hit six drives this week that went phffft," he told swing
coach Jim Flick last Friday, "into the right rough." Flick,
watching Lehman blast drives the length of the soggy range at
the Muirfield Village Golf Club, could find little to fault.
Lehman's explosive swing, like a triggered mousetrap, is hard to
analyze with the naked eye. His practice balls, however,
streaked downrange with a tight draw and a low, boring
"I think my swing is getting worse," Lehman said, unappeased.
"Worse because I can't repeat it. The good swings may be better,
but it's not consistent." To disprove his point, Lehman scorched
several more drives to the foundation of a gray sky. "I'm doing
a lot of things right," he finally conceded.
Flick, with nothing to add, gave him a paternal pat on the butt.
"There's a different measuring device now," the swing coach
explained afterward. "Tiger Woods." And as was the case when
Jack Nicklaus dominated the Tour in the '60s, the best players
realize that they'll have to play better to reach the top.
"Arnold Palmer claimed that one of the best things that happened
to him was Jack's coming on the scene," said Flick, "because he
The problem with hard work as the prescription for Tigeritis is
that most of the game's best have been taking that medicine for
years. Nick Faldo trains like an Olympian. Singh lives on the
practice range. Greg Norman revises his swing with the frequency
of a software programmer (the Secret 5.1!) and changes swing
coaches at the drop of a green jacket. All are capable of
clipping Woods in a given major, but none are likely to show up
at Congressional with 50 more yards off the tee and a
The answer, some believe, is not hard work but attitude. "You
need someone like Corey Pavin or Tom Lehman to look Tiger in the
eye and say, 'I'm not afraid of you,'" Paul Azinger said after
his Friday round. Azinger, the 1993 PGA champion, was just that
kind of someone before a bout with cancer interrupted his
career--a guy who didn't mind getting in the face of a gamesman
such as Seve Ballesteros or an intimidator like Faldo. "I was
kind of an angry player," said Azinger, looking wistful. "If
people said I wasn't up to a challenge, it motivated me."
Pavin, a three-time Ryder Cup stalwart and the U.S. Open champ
at Shinnecock in '95, has the attitude. Unfortunately, he seems
to have misplaced his game. In 11 starts this season Pavin has
cracked the top 25 only once and languishes at 123rd on the
money list. Anyway, Tiger's tamer is more likely to be a player
closer to his own age, someone like 26-year-old Phil Mickelson,
second on last year's money list and a winner of 10 Tour events.
"I think Mickelson is more than up to that challenge," Azinger
said. "I thought he was the best player out here till Tiger
arrived. Phil's got all the shots and no fear."
Brightening noticeably, Azinger said, "I can't wait for the day
those two guys go at it."
But to look Tiger in the eye, you have to be in his lair.
Mickelson and Woods have never squared off on a Sunday. At the
Memorial, eye contact between the two was hampered because Woods
was often in deep trouble and Mickelson was up to his first
knuckles in onion dip--in northern Utah, celebrating his
grandmother-in-law's 50th wedding anniversary.
O.K., it's folly to predict tournament winners. But what else is
there to do when rain pelts a golf course the way it did last
week at Muirfield Village? The third round of the Memorial
started at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday and crawled to shore, gasping,
at 11:30 a.m. on Monday.
So episodic was play that otherwise intriguing developments flew
by like film trailers, to be replaced by TV shots of striped
umbrellas and flooded greens.
So persistent was the rain that tournament and USGA officials
had to make contingency plans for the 36-hole U.S. Open
sectional qualifying rounds scheduled for the Columbus area on
So soft were the greens that players shot at the pins like fly
fishermen casting at ripples on a pond. Norman made four
straight birdies on Sunday afternoon and trailed coleaders Singh
and Scott Hoch by one stroke when rain interrupted the third
round for the third time. Understandably, weather forecasts took
precedence over U.S. Open predictions....
Weatherman: "Seventy to 80 percent chance of rain or
thundershowers, locally heavy at times."
Tommy Tolles: "Nobody but Tiger can stop Tiger. To be honest, we
just don't have the games for it right now."
Weatherman: "One hundred percent chance of showers outside, a 60
percent chance in high-ceilinged rooms."
Jim Furyk: "I don't think you can name one guy. Lehman, Davis
Love, Freddie Couples--nobody's backing down, if that's what
Weatherman: "Woods if it rains, Ernie Els if it's
dry--otherwise, Frank Nobilo."
Tolles (revised forecast): "Lehman. He hits it in the middle of
the club face almost every swing, and he's got the game for any
If nothing else, the Memorial was kind to the forecasters.
Furyk, the fast-improving fellow with the funny swing, tied
Norman for second. Tolles, the young pro out of the University
of Georgia, finished in a tie for fourth. And the
weatherman--well, he was right. It rained.
That left the perfect opening for the elegant Fijian, Singh, who
glided onto the set on Monday morning with his umbrella and Gene
Kelly fedora and promptly tapped in for eagle at the par-5 11th
for a two-shot lead. Hoch, a less flexible fellow, wrenched his
back on the 11th fairway and played the rest of the way in pain,
finishing along with Tolles and Lee Janzen in fourth.
Woods, meanwhile, left Ohio with a 67th-place check for $3,800
and a headful of negative swing thoughts. On Sunday afternoon,
as a huge rain cloud opened up on Muirfield Village, Tiger tuned
up for the Open by knocking two wedge shots into a pond fronting
the 3rd hole. He then three-putted for a 9--his worst number as
a pro--and flung his ball into the drink, narrowly missing a duck.
It was a reminder that golf does not always reward the hardest
worker, the fiercest competitor or the greatest talent.
Sometimes the prize goes to the player who can best weather the